Feedback loops: everything you need to know.

Feedback loops: everything you need to know.

We talked with Andreas Bartel, Accredited Kanban Trainer, Coach and Consultant. Andreas is not only working with Kanban for more than 10 years, but he also has a degree in cognitive science which enables him to thoroughly explain the neuroscientific aspects and concepts to successfully implement agile initiatives. In this article we will dive into the world of feedback loops. 

According to Andreas, feedback loops can be described as a relationship between two parts where the output of one part is the input of the other part. And the output of the second part is feeding back as input into the first part. So, feedback loops are bidirectional relationship between any parts you can think of. 

Andreas Bartel interview photo 2

Very often we hear about positive and negative feedback loops. How can we tell the difference? 

A positive feedback loop is something that reinforces something you already have. A typical example is money in your bank account. The more money you have in your bank account, the more interest rate you get and consequently the more money you generate. Since it is growing, you might even call it an escalating feedback loop. 

On the other hand, the negative feedback loop works as a balancing element. For instance, the usual example is what happens in the animal world: a predator - prey relationship. For instance, a cheetah and a gazelle. Imagine, there are a lot of preys which in this case would be the gazelles. The more preys you have, the more cheetahs appear, and the more cheetahs you have - the more gazelles get eaten. Eventually you will reach a stabilizing point where the relationship is balanced out. This is a negative feedback loop. 

Overall, the difference between the positive and the negative feedback loop is that the positive one is reinforcing, and the negative one is balancing.” -Andreas Bartel 

Positive vs negative feedback loops

Why are feedback loops important in business and in general?  

Feedback loops are a natural phenomenon, it is not something that humans invented. They regulate populations. Like in the cheetah and gazelle example, they regulate environmental changes, unless humankind intervenes. In the business world things change too and for the business to survive, it needs to adapt to this change.  

To do so, you need some mechanisms to perceive the change, capture it, adjust internally, and then respond appropriately, as these changes could have a significant effect on stakeholders. Like evolution, it is essential that the organization can sense any change that happens in the environment. So then it can adjust its actions appropriately to survive in the long run. 

A clear example to see this would be events like the pandemic. Not all the organizations were able to survive this episode. This could have been caused by a broken feedback loop, or delays inside the feedback loops. So, your capability as an organization to survive is dependent on your well-functioning feedback loops. In other words, you can sense change in the environment and react appropriately. 

"A feedback loop is an uncontrollable change in the environment, and our response to them will ultimately determine the survival of your business." 

Andreas Bartel sitting during the interview photo

Thus, how can an organization ensure that they do not have “broken feedback loops” and how can they spot them? 

To illustrate this extraordinarily complex topic, I will use an example. Kodak was one of the world's largest companies dedicated to the production of films for making photos. At some point, the need for digital photography appeared and they even initiated projects to develop this innovation. In fact, Kodak was one of the pioneer films. Their films went to the moon, so the first photos were taken with Kodak films. Despite being quite progressive, Kodak could not yet recognize upcoming changes. They could not let go and adjust, instead they reinforced investments in existing competences. Just to observe a few years later that would be their downfall. 

This is what I call a broken feedback loop. The challenging part of it is that humans are responsible for making decision inside the feedback loops, not robots. Humans can always override logic and make decisions that breaks the feedback loops. You could perceive signals from your market, from your customer, from any stakeholders that usually would lead to a change inside your organization. But humans for various reasons can decide differently. This is a broken feedback loop. Because the human factor is certainly one of the most influencing factors in feedback loops in organizations.

Broken feedback loop illustration

To put it in another way, how can organizations have well-established feedback loops?  

On the contrary, a well-functioning feedback loop should be capable of changing the polarity: positive to negative, and vice versa. Think back on the Kodak example. You have been investing in a particular area for the last years - this is the reinforcing feedback loop (positive). You are improving a skill you are already good at. But at some point, it might be necessary that you drop it because the market is behaving differently, and you must reduce the investments in what you are already good at and focus on other things towards which your market is leaning. You need to recognize that, and then you change your polarity in such a way that you may sacrifice something in order to grant capacity to build up different skills.  

Therefore, I think a well-functioning feedback loop can be described as the organization's capability of turning “on” and “off” between these polarities of positive and negative feedback loops in such a way that the combination of this “on” and “off” provides you the required results.  

In terms of change management, for instance, you introduce a change, and after some time you realize you are back again where you started. That must be an indication that you are potentially stuck in a negative feedback loop. The challenge here is to recognize that and find a way to switch the feedback loop polarity if it is necessary. You should strengthen your capability of doing things in time and appropriately, so that you are not stuck in one position, or one skill, and you do not reinforce the things that you should have dropped a year ago. And I think that is the key element. 

"Overriding logic could be the downfall of your company, instead focus on building your capability of switching polarities. This will enable you to assemble well functioning loops and avoid broken feedback loops" 

Andreas Bartel interview photo

When do feedback loops take place in working environment? Do you think it is always in a meeting? 

You will have reached the conclusion that there are all kinds of feedback loops inside your organization widespread without any specific meetings transpiring. It can even take place in such a thing like small talk at a coffee machine. 

So, you do not have to have meetings in order to have feedback loops. I would even say that the feedback loops are agnostic to anything a human can invent or introduce in an organization because they exist anyway. Nonetheless, the real question here is not whether meetings are necessary or not. But rather how we can use meetings, or different forms of communication for feedback loops, and what are the benefits, if we have any.  

"Feedback looks take place everywhere and anywhere but in order to raise our self-awareness and have greater control over them we need to make them explicit. That is have cadences." 

Feedback loop example: Office chat over a coffee

We have just explored that we do not have to have a meeting for a feedback loop to take place. However, to make it explicit and to have control over what happens inside the feedback loops, we would need an appropriate cadence. What is the relationship between feedback loops and cadences? 

When we make feedback loops explicit in a way, we can have a control over what happens in this meeting, and have the benefit of switching the polarity, reducing, or stabilizing something. So, the cadence is how often do you want to make this feedback loop explicit in your particular business context so that you have awareness of what happens inside this feedback loop and how things work.  

In this way we can assess, observe, experience things, make decisions to see what are the consequences of the decisions that we take. Then you get that as an input for the following up meeting. So, to get control of managing feedback loops you need cadences. The way to do it is to couple the things that happen naturally in your organization, and the means to supervise what happens inside these feedback loops is by implementing a cadence that you use to investigate and have control over the things that occur inside feedback loops. Make them explicit. 

Kanban cadences illustration

Once we have established the importance of cadences, what are their relationship with Kanban and how do we get started? 

A cadence is a regular event that gives you an opportunity to review or investigate things. It is a timespan where you look what happens inside a feedback loop. It can take place once a year, once a quarter, once a month, maybe once a week or even daily. This depends on what kind of information you get in your feedback loop and how often you need to react to this information to close the loop. This should be your guiding principle.  

From a Kanban Method perspective, we usually begin with talking about service orientation from the customer's perspective. You have a service, some sort of delivery, and you might investigate how good you are at this delivery.  This would be to begin one of the initial elements of the standard cadence set: it would be a Flow Review or a Service Delivery Review, depending on your maturity level.   

From the Kanban perspective, there are three elements to establish. First, you have the replenishment meeting where you make the decisions of what is the most essential, most urgent part, or element we should be working on next. Secondly, you need to organize, regulate, manage the delivery. This is like the operational perspective. To finish off, of course you need to look at what you have delivered and reflect if you can improve the delivery. I would say these are the essential elements of the standard cadence set from a Kanban's perspective. 

To wrap-up

We thank Andreas for this comprehensive interview and hope that this material will help Kanban practitioners to better understand the rather complex topic of feedback loops. Overall, we can conclude that feedback loops are a natural phenomenon that is bound to take place in an organization, however it is important that we know how to address these adequately to ensure that we benefit from them. In other words, we need to be sure that the loop is well-established and that we set Kanban cadences. In this way we can observe and evaluate the situations taking place in the company to act and take decisions accordingly. 

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