Failure Modes in Kanban

Failure Modes in Kanban

Author: Anna Radzikowska, Accredited Kanban Trainer and Coach

With more than a decade of observations and experience from around the world and across a broad spectrum of industries, two patterns of failure, or failure modes, have emerged with the implementation of the  Kanban Method: the false summit plateau and overreaching.

False Summit Plateau

The false summit plateau comes from the arrogance of believing that since an organization has adopted Kanban already, they’ve already experienced all of its benefits. Typically, we hear a reaction of “We’ve done  Kanban! It helped us […].” Usually from a shop-floor, bottom-up  initiative, they list some or all of these practices and benefits that  map to Maturity Level 1:

  • Relief from overburdening and stressful, abusive environment
  • Improved transparency
  • Improved collaboration
  • “Gave us what we needed”

In part, the Kanban Maturity Model exists to show that these shallow adoptions have left a lot of additional benefits on the table and that the organization can take Kanban a lot further.

How to Mitigate the False Summit Plateau

Try Kanban Litmus Test.

It is designed to help organizations assess their progress with Kanban and suggest areas that may yield effective improvements. It consists of a  series of four questions; the first questions are prerequisites for those that follow.

  1. Has management behavior changed to enable Kanban?
  2. Has the customer interface changed, in line with Kanban?
  3. Has the customer contract changed, as informed by Kanban?
  4. Has your service delivery business model changed to exploit Kanban?

Overreaching

Overreaching usually results in aborted adoption. The problem is rooted in an overly ambitious transition plan, often to a design intended to achieve  Maturity Level 4 or even 5 in an organization currently at Maturity  Level 0 or 1. The problem often manifests because of “the smartest guy  in the room.” This person is a consultant or a coach who feels psychological or social pressure to show off their knowledge and expertise or is simply too optimistic and overly ambitious.

When the practices are too advanced for novices or organizations with an immature culture, existing behaviors, or supporting practices, the result is that the new practices simply don’t stick. Often, people are incapable of understanding the benefit. For example, if every work item is a task, what would be the point of risk hedging using the capacity allocation of WIP limits across work items of different types? In a  world where everything is homogeneous, the concept of hedging risk is incomprehensible.

The Kanban Maturity Model also exists, in part,  to provide a roadmap and a means to interpret and appraise organizational maturity and readiness for any specific Kanban practice. A  competent coach can use the model as a guide to suggest the right next steps and avoid overreaching.

For instance, it’s easy to risk overreaching when you try to scale. Anything that you try to do at a  large scale requires a deeper maturity organization in order to be able to absorb the change. Trying to install a scaled framework in a  low-maturity organization is doomed to failure. Maturity Level 1  organizations are not good at change management or process improvement initiatives. Biting of the massive, big thing, which is a scaled framework just because it’s trendy or fashionable is inappropriate and is an example of overreaching.

How to Mitigate Overreaching

  • Focus on solving the problem, on the system, not on individuals
  • Patience, recognizing that a small improvement is still an improvement
  • Humbleness, creating a culture of small improvements rather than big bank changes promoting the stars and individual heroes
  • Make policies explicit around decision making
  • Conduct a STATIK workshop, it gives people ownership
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