Monday, 14 September 2009

Kanban: “Value”, Keyser Söze and Process Improvement

With my recent foray into the world of kanban I have really been focusing (or should I say adjusting my focus) on tasks that add value.


I think “value” is a funny word – the meaning of it seems to have been diluted/misinterpreted at some point. Many people often associate value as simply meaning “good” or “cheap”. While finding something of value is “good” and value is determined by how “cheap” it is – it is not all “value” is about.

To quote

relative worth, merit, or importance: the value of a college education; the value of a queen in chess.

Note, this is the first definition, before “monetary or material worth”. For me, there are two key words in the above quote: Merit (“excellence”) and Importance (“consequence”).

Value is about striving for excellence in the most important/consequential things.

To add "value” to our lives, we should aim to perfect that which means something to us.

This is something that has really struck a chord with me. Hell it’s strung a whole load of them and my brain seems to be happily strumming away. I now find myself looking at EVERYTHING and how it adds value to what I am trying to do.

Kaizen – The Keyser Söze of Kanban

In kanban and lean there is a strong notion of kaizen. First off, we establish flow (our process). We accept that the flow may not be perfect but we establish a pull mechanism which ensures that we only move items into the next stage of the process once we have everything we need (whatever that may be).

This produces some interesting experiences. You quickly start to find that your process which you thought was bulletproof is suddenly full of holes and peeing all over the carpet. You realise you do not stick to your process as well as you thought, or your process is simply flawed and creating more work at some places and bottlenecks at others. This may sound negative, but it’s a fantastic thing.

As a software developer, I am a big fan of “fail fast”. If something isn’t quite right I want the system to fail (gracefully). A failed system highlights flaws. Once flaws have been highlighted, they can then be fixed.

Ensuring we perform a regular review of our board (I have it as the final stage of my COMIK process) forces us to go on the hunt for the elusive kaizen opportunities. The funny thing is though, much like Keyser Söze, 9 times out of 10, it’s staring you right in the face – you just need to open your eyes to the possibilities.

Making It Better

Once you have identified the problems, you can start working on the solutions. Again, with the kanban board we have the ability to change the board quickly (especially with excellent tools like Nate Kohari’s AgileZen) so we can try new things to see how they work without too much “cost”.

An Example

I recently had a fantastic kaizen brainstorm. One of the key thoughts that came to me was:

Every time I improve my process, I bite off even more. This prevents me from actually getting better at the work I do, I just stay the same level and try to cram more down the pipe.

By this, I mean that I felt I was not really adding value to the work I was doing – going through the motions does not mean you are good (or getting better) at it.


I established strict work in process limits. WIP limits are a common theme across lean/kanban teams. It basically says “I can only do so much”. It’s not rocket science.

However, I never really applied it to my personal kanban board since I felt that “hey, I’m in charge of me and I know exactly how to manage myself!”. Well, kanban and kaizen showed me that I was wrong.

Now, I cannot bite of more than I can chew – the only way I can pull something else is if I either complete a bit of work, or re-prioritize. And that is the key – I need to make my work count. If I need to get tasks A, B and C done, but I can only do one of them – which one should I do?

The one which:

  • Add the most value.
  • Will make the next task easier.
  • Will move a project forward.
  • Make me never have to do task X again.
  • Enables someone else to do task Y.
  • etc.

WIP Limit Misconceptions

WIP limits are often viewed as people “trying to be lazy”. I personally viewed them as a “waste of time since I was only managing one person”. This is not the case.

WIP limits force you to be honest about how much you can get done - this ensures you to do the right things first.

Think about how much you can actually get done (to a high quality) then limit your work to that. Now take the best of the backlog and work with them. Keep the value flowing.

Work Hard. Play Harder.

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