Thursday, April 10, 2014

Achieving continuous improvement through Kanban

I am often asked, “how do you create the right motivation for real organizational change?” Just because you’re using a kanban system does not automatically ensure your company will see all the success it is looking for or that you can make the improvements you seek in productivity. What is the missing ingredient to vast improvements in the fastest manner?

One of the leading success principles begins with creating a culture of continuous improvement. This goes way beyond the constraints of problem solving and ventures into a completely new mindset of permanently solving problems by improving your systems continuously.

With this mindset, there is no longer a beginning and an ending, but rather an evolution and progression of new solutions for new problems and the process continues… forever. However, this change does not come by adding sticky notes to a board. It is a literal shift in thinking that allows more significant system improvements.

But how do we start a culture of continuous improvement? That’s probably the biggest mistake one can do to think “we only have to roll-out our genuine change plan and then we have a culture of continuous improvement in place.” I guarantee: you will fail! Culture is broad, culture is deep. Culture is “how we do it here” and culture is “how we always did it here.” There’s no way that your change plan will change a firmly established culture. The point is your cultural change already starts with the change process! The Kanban Method supports exactly this idea, which I also discussed in the article “Signposts towards a culture of continuous improvement.”

Form a Kanban Change Team

If you’re starting with more than a guerrilla Kanban initiative - let’s say at least Flight Level 2 and 30+ internal and external stakeholders - you’ll have to do a little bit of homework. One of the fastest and most effective ways to start is to form a Kanban change team. By building a team, it allows an entire group of people to be responsible for the change. Furthermore, we all know that…
  • Groups make better decisions than individuals. We know from experience that the power of groups is far more effective than the single minded purpose of one individual to make good change decisions.
  • A team protects an organization from a single point of failure. As an example, what if you had a single person designated as the change agent and she decided to leave your organization? By using a team, you never have to succumb to the limits presented by one person’s issues or concerns.
  • Dividing up the work between team members will lead to increased productivity. 
  • etc.
Building the dynamics of such a diverse team has the potential to affect change more significantly because everyone must come together for this single purpose, yet with differing views and perspectives. How can you use this team to develop its collective power for optimal performance?

Begin by building a diverse change team. Try to win over people from different hierarchies as well as various functions within the organization to be part of the change team. For example, choosing some business individuals along with development people interspersed with project managers and team leaders. The contrasts between functions and hierarchies provide an opportunity to come to joint decision-making that is far superior to stewing in your own juice.

Improve the way you change

In a culture of continuous improvement, an important goal is to improve the way you make improvements. In other words, improve the way you change. A key to making this happen is by conducting a retrospective of past changes.

How can you really improve the future without clearly understanding the past? A retrospective answers two very important questions:
  1. What went well last time?
  2. What should we improve this time?
Since the Kanban change team has various levels of experience, expertise and different perspectives, these answers can guide the way for more effective communication and discussion towards problem solving. 

Creating an environment of collaboration keeps everyone interested and engaged in the outcome as well as the process. This is also true for change processes! Of course, you still need more than a change team and a retrospective if you want to achieve continuous improvement. The good news is there are three more articles in the queue where I'll elaborate more about this topic... ;-)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Pre-queue: See what's after next

The idea of the pre-queue came about three years ago in a system design workshop with a Swiss financial services company as we were contemplating the input queue and its dimensions. We thought a weekly queue replenishment would be good and set the length of the queue to 8 as the staff assumed that this was the maximum number of tickets they could close in a week. After trying out a short simulation of how the kanban system would behave in real-life operation, there were mixed feelings about the input queue. "Surely you don’t believe for one moment that our stakeholders can decide which are the next eight items we should process," one of the heads of department said. An experienced developer continued with the argument: "Not only that they have to agree on the next 8 work items - they are not allowed to change their minds. As soon as something lands in the input queue it cannot be removed. That sounds like science fiction in our current way of working."

A testing assistant spoke up and countered: "Yesterday we were still speaking about what we were dissatisfied with," she says going to a list of improvement wishes and points to a specific card." And in second place in our pain points we can read here ‘We want to know what is to be done next.‘ We get this information from the input queue. If we take a look at number 5 on our improvement wishes, I read ‘We want our priorities to stop changing constantly'. We can address this with a controlled input queue. As soon as a task is hung up, we do it." Everyone nodded in agreement but they did not seem really convinced that the stakeholders would agree to this change.

The analysts’ perspective

We decided spontaneously to ask two of the stakeholders - business analysts - to join the workshop and to discuss the topic with them. That worked really well, because we then understood better what their wishes were. "Above all, we must be able to react flexibly. It's just the way things are the time and new opportunities come up and we want to be able to respond to these," one of the business analysts said. A recurrent pattern in system design: One wants to achieve maximum room for maneuver and the others want to know exactly what is to be done next. Opportunities can also be addressed with classes of service, which also was suggested by some people. In this particular situation it was, however, a matter of ensuring that the stakeholders did not want to state categorically the standard work they required one week in advance.

The other business analyst continued to argue. "Another important point is that we want to see what will be completed by you in the coming two to three months. If you want this thing-a-me-jig queue, then we must set the limit to at least 64 - which matches your calculations for two months. But as already mentioned before, we must be able to permanently change the sequence, otherwise you are cementing in the agility we require". And this is where the A-word fell: agility. I did not want to open this big door once again and bit my lip. A discussion between agility vs. chaos is the last thing we needed. 

Large and small at the same time

In my role as moderator I tried to sum up the discussion: "I have heard that the main issue is that priorities keep changing and that you want to know what work you can expect in the coming period. We can achieve this through a regulated flow to the kanban system – the input queue and queue replenishment. From the business analysts I heard that for you it is important what can be achieved within a large time window. But you want to maintain flexibility so that the sequence of tasks may change." Fine, at least we have consensus on the issue. 

My brain was ticking like mad: More flexibility or agility is achieved through a shorter input queue and more frequent replenishment. We could reduce the input queue to four and replenish it twice a week. That would give us more flexibility but we have reduced predictability from the desired two to three months to half a week.  Simultaneous large and small input queues cannot be created. So the solution does not lie with the input queue. I made the following suggestion: "What would you think if we built a pre-queue in front of the input queue where the stakeholders could change the sequence? This queue could be large so that you have the necessary predictability. 64,  for example, corresponding to two months. At the same time we reduce the input queue to 4 and it is replenished twice a week giving you greater flexibility." After some discussion we came to a common understanding of what the benefit of the suggestion could bring and we agreed to simply give it a try. It cannot be stated enough. In Kanban system design pragmatism is what is needed. The initial design looked similar to as follows:

A few weeks later

When I visited the company again a few weeks later, a lot had changed. The pre-queue was reduced to 20, because it turned out very quickly that the business analysts were not able to define 64 work items in advance. The size of the input queue had increased to 9 and it was replenished only once a week. The issue of queue replenishment had caused a lot of interactions among the stakeholders and so the permanent reordering of tasks was reduced significantly. 

What are the benefits of a pre-queue?

What had I learned? A lot! I identified the following main reasons why companies often go for a pre-queue:
  • Look ahead: An instrument to see what may be achieved within a lengthy period of time. 
  • Higher agility: The input queue can be kept small so one can react faster to changing conditions. 
  • Shorter lead times: The input queue can be kept small which leads to reduced lead times for individual work items. 
  • Late commitment: The contents of the pre-queue can change continually, something very valuable for business analysts.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Brickell Key Award Nomination

I feel very honored to be nominated for this year's Brickell Key Award. The award is named after the Brickell Key island near Miami where our community first gathered for the Lean and Kanban Conference in May 2009. According to the organizers, the award highlights excellence in our community honoring two people who have shown outstanding achievement, leadership and contribution to our community. Wow! Thanks! :-)

Now it's up to the committee to pick two out of six nominees - and you can help them choose! I'd highly appreciate if you would write a short reference about my work and me. You attended one of my training classes and you found it useful? Great! Let the jury know! You're using the Kanban Flight Levels model to communicate the power of Kanban? You found my book useful or you liked one of the community events I organized? Please let the committee know :-)

The award ceremony will be held on May 8, 2014 at the Lean Kanban North America conference in San Francisco and I'm already freaking exited :-)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kanban is like a home trainer

Since the beginning of the year alone I have supervised the design of 13 different kanban systems in different companies. After two or three days of work the initial kanban system is hanging on the wall and everyone is standing proudly in front of it. Now and again I hear statements like: "I really hope that Kanban makes us faster." or "We hope that Kanban will finally be of use to us." When I hear things like this it conjures up a very delightful image in my head which in the situation of the future daily working routine would look something like this: Some people are sitting in a circle in front of the kanban board. One person writes on a red Post-it "Blocker: test infrastructure not ready", gets up and sticks the Post-it on a piece of work in the "TEST" column on the board. He turns around again to the group. Questioning looks. A few seconds of silence. And then a colleague asks: "And that helps?"

NO! Of course it doesn’t help. Surprisingly enough it is simply not sufficient to sit banished in front of a kanban system waiting until things get better. It is the same as setting up the newest high-tech home trainer in the living room and then sitting down on the couch beside it waiting for the surplus kilos simply to disappear.

Obviously it didn’t work, did it? However, for people taking action it is not at all obvious. Things are purchased – be it a home trainer or Kanban – with the hope that "it" will make us better. "It" doesn’t make anything better.  Human beings are the driving force in improvement. "It" is a mere tool.

And that is exactly how I want to see kanban taught. Kanban allows you to see weak points and based on this understanding to reflect on improvements and make better conscious decisions. This works only by letting people design their own working system by themselves and not by adopting some "best practices" that prescribe a methodology or framework.  If you take part in Kanban training, you will also come to understand how to improve certain situations - but, nevertheless, you have to do it yourself.

Kanban in itself is neither a solution nor an improvement – just as the mere presence of a home trainer changes nothing in the fitness of a person. The active participation of the individual is always needed to bring about an improvement. Everything else is simply sorcery.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Leadership at all levels

Which forms of management are necessary to nurture a culture of continuous improvement? Modern (change) management is mainly about

  • A careful awareness of what is actually happening in an organization,
  • Professional communication, both internally and externally, i.e. with all stakeholders above and beyond corporate barriers, hierarchical structures or departments,
  • Agile design of the change process using state of the art methods.

Curious self-perception

This is also about self-perception, particularly among management. The Viennese organizational consultant, Rudi Wimmer, defines success of any single change process by the willingness of management to examine first  its own perception of itself. (see: Organisation und Beratung: Systemtheoretische Perspektiven für die Praxis, Wimmer 2004).  Only the insight by management that it cannot function as a change agent without questioning at the same time necessary changes in management performance, creates the foundations for successful change. My experience shows that this is anything but taken for granted. It is likewise confirmed by a survey of 1,100 British first line managers: 72% of those surveyed never doubt their own management skills and this exaggerated opinion of oneself does not stop there: 80% of management believe they are among the top 20% of managers. (Kunst des Entscheidens: Ein Quantum Trost für Zweifler und Zauderer, Ortmann 2011)

So what lies behind all these curious self perceptions? You would do well to assume that it is the remnants of a mechanistic organizational image based on a management model which decides to ignore critical self reflection and a fitting modesty. The company as a machine corresponds to the manager as a mechanic or administrator.

Management as a team effort

In the 21st century, according to the essence of contemporary management and leadership debates, command and control is bowing to a culture which respects self-control without losing sight of the overall need for organizational coordination. New forms of networked management are appearing at the side of hierarchical management to make best use of the available expertise, particularly with regard to an accurate perception of the environmental dynamics. 'Management as a team effort' is fast becoming the key factor.

As this image shows, the concept of management as a team effort points to at least two necessary changes: first, the centralist approach of traditional management must be overcome and second, the "one way street" in the communication and decision making processes.

(Change) Leadership must be nurtured at all levels of the organisation – starting with the workers on the shop floor up to senior management. The 4th Kanban principle.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The iceberg of change

My blogpost, "Do I have to do that? Can I do that? Do I want to do that?" was about these three questions asked by all involved in a change process. Not surprisingly the answers are rarely purely rational in nature but also involve emotions to a great extent. That is simply the ways things are when human beings are involved. And the illustration of the iceberg of change shows this very clearly:

The image shows that the substantive reasons for change, conveying strategies and objectives or the representation of a project plan usually only make for a fraction of what starts moving during intensive phases of change. The fact that many change projects are shipwrecked can be attributed to the fact that these projects are often focused only on the surface of the issue.  And also due to the fact that the focus is restricted on account of poor communication between the captain, the officers and crew. However, should a change initiative only encompass the infamous tip of the iceberg, one need not be surprised if the Titanic of change goes under.

Be it the much quoted seventh of the iceberg we are seeing or a little more or less is of no consequence - the fact is that by far the largest part lies beneath the surface of pure rationale. The advantage that proponents of change have over the captain of a ship is the fact that large parts of the iceberg can suddenly emerge, become visible and wait to be dealt with – ignoring them won't make them go away.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Emotions in the change process

As I already mentioned in the blog post "Do I have to do that? Can I do that? Do I want to do that?" organizational change is inseparably linked to personal emotions. These emotions should be regarded as the elixir of life for any change. They release energy, they attribute meaning, they force progress. In our book, 'Kanban in IT' (to appear in English soon), Sigi Kaltenecker and I devoted a whole chapter to emotions in the change process. In this article I want to provide a little insight into a very broad theme.

The consultant team, Barbara Heitger and Alexander Doujak, in their book “Die Logik der Gefühle und die Macht der Zahlen“ (The logic of feelings and the power of figures) describe four categories of feelings which typically arise during the change process:
  • Insecurity, concern, fear are particularly prevalent in the first phase of the change curve.
  • Frustration and aggression are the determining feelings in the second phase of the typical change process.
  • Sadness and disappointment mark the phase of ‘‘emotional acceptance“.
  • Optimism, joy and courage blend with recognition, intensive practice and integration in the change process.

Insecurity, concern, fear

In practice such feelings neither are clearly sorted nor are they unadulterated. What uncertainty, what concern and what fear are, usually cannot be exactly determined in daily life. In addition, these feelings are often hidden. Since insecurity or fear cause vulnerability, these feelings are – particularly among men - presented in the crude form of aggression. On the other hand, the feelings are hidden plainly and simply by the fact that they are suppressed. In addition to struggle and aggression, avoidance and ignorance are equally good ways of dealing with unpleasant feelings.

The American organizational scientist, Edgar H. Schein, showed in his book "Organizational Culture and Leadership" that in change processes two particular forms of fear arise, existential angst and fear of learning. Both fears have very different origins.

In the case of existential angst the issues are
  • The threat of a loss of status: "Tomorrow I will no longer be a manager",
  • The devaluation of one's own expertise: "Tomorrow all my experience as a project manager will no longer count",
  • The threat of the disappearance of the trusted environment: "Tomorrow I will be working in a completely new team".

In the course of learning fears will be evoked both by the necessary acquisition of new skills or areas of knowledge as well as by the equally necessary unlearning of the old. Fears such as
  • Of temporary or permanent incompetence: "I simply cannot do it",
  • On account of incompetence, having to expect punishment or at least disadvantages: "If I don't hack it, I will lose my position",
  • Of  suffering a personal loss of identity: "My life long I have been a development specialist, why now should I have to analyse or test?",
  • Of no longer being a member of a certain group or community: "What will happen if in my specialist area I lose the rapport to my colleagues?"
For these reasons it is important to realize that change processes involve not only learning something new but also unlearning the old.

Frustration and aggression

It is common knowledge that one does not have to flee from threats - you can confront them and conquer them. Anger and aggression are established means of doing so. If in the context of information events loud boos resound when the team leader on the jour fixe is accused of treason, or when in the coffee corner one hears nothing but curses about "those up there", we are already in the middle of the issue. It's about setting boundaries. Personal identity must be maintained and anything threatening must be kept in check. Anger and aggression play an important role in the context of profound change processes and these need to be accepted and endured. People have to let off steam to make room for the new. Thunderstorms are known to have a cleansing  function - provided you provide a good lightning conductor, not least in the form of professional support from experienced change facilitators.

Sadness and disappointment

Sadness helps to let certain things go and to put then behind us. Before we can look forward to the future, our present is dominated by different colored images in our memory. These images of mourning, like frustration or aggression, must find expression.

Optimism, joy and courage 

If what are experienced as negative feelings such as fear, frustration or sadness are processed well, they leave room for positive experiences. Often there is a surprising openness to change once the past is really let go. Energy can now focus on learning, on practicing improved processes and integrating modified working methods. Old strengths are accessed in new contexts, the tried and tested appears in a new form. A true reconciliation takes place, a bridge between yesterday, today and tomorrow.

What now?

To bring changes on track, it is imperative to understand these emotions properly. Only a profound knowledge of the different forms, dynamics and functions of emotions can form the basis for promising change management. However, beware of control illusions. Emotions arise neither in a uniform way or at the same time. They need different amounts of time, space and attention. They are not predictable. And there is no magical solution to eliminate all emotional challenges. Nevertheless, change management cannot avoid addressing emotions. Because without emotional mobilization no change initiative can progress.