Friday, May 22, 2009

Flaccid Kanban

A few shops in my professional community have started flying the Kanban flag. This is potentially a great step forward in opening the agile software development dialog to a more rigorous understanding of value, especially in how value is lost and how to defend development efforts from the pervasive value leaks in end-to-end workflows.

XP and Scrum shops - especially those with people with significant XP and Scrum experience - might trip over their unrecognized biases at first.

Iterations and Rolling Wave

Kanban doesn't require iterations. Scrum and XP work management doesn't magically transist into Kanban when we remove iterations. What we get from iteration-less Scrum and XP is Scrum or XP with rolling wave planning. Regardless of the benefit of rolling wave, it's not really Kanban until you're asking (and answering) some fundamental questions about work management, organizational performance, and value.

What is the purpose of Kanban?

The purpose of Kanban in software isn't to merely ditch the overhead of iterations. That overhead is a form of waste that might be avoided when iterations are taken out of the picture, but depending on the surrounding context, just as much compensatory waste might be created when iterations are removed.

The purpose of Kanban - other than visual control systems - is to limit work-in-progress in relation to a team's capacity in order to become sensitive to opportunities for improvement and to see waste and value loss (attribution: david anderson). But it's not enough to just announce in a team meeting that context-switching is now verboten. There's a point to limiting work in-progress, and there are a good number of inter-related practices and principles that benefit the work and the management of the work that come into play.

Flaccid Kanban

Martin Fowler recently wrote an article entitled Flaccid Scrum. The article calls attention to a Scrum implementations and adoptions that try to achieve agile software development's promise without implementing anything but agile project management, ignoring the engineering practices that allow agile project management to yield the promises of agile software development as a whole.

As Lean gains popularity and adoption, it becomes susceptible to the degradations that come of mainstream opportunism. Kanban adoption into relatively mature XP teams seems to be creating a sort of Flaccid Kanban - implementations of Kanban that more or less disregard the underlying reasons and mechanics of Kanban.

The real loss here is that we tend to stop looking for something once we believe we've found it. What has been frequently adopted lately that has been called Kanban appears to be merely rolling wave planning. Not that there's anything wrong with rolling wave, it's likely a necessary component of Kanban in software development, but there's nothing good about reaching for Kanban and coming up short because of the temptation to use Kanban in-name-only merely for the fashionista value.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

Learn more about my work and how I can help you at