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The Starting Viewpoint of Kanban: The Lean Flow Paradigm

When you start using Kanban you need to change your viewpoint. Look at the world - in particular look at your work - through the prism of flow. It's amazing what you'll see.

Recently I've been looking for the shortest possible introduction for those starting Kanban. +David Anderson's foundational principles are a good candidate. Taking (I hope tolerable) liberties with the presentation of these, I summarise the principles as follows (please see "There are 3 ... Principles of Kanban" for what the "dot-dot-dots" stand for) :
  1. Start with what you do now ...
  2. Agree to pursue ... evolutionary change
  3. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels ...
It's a great starting point.

But I'm dissatisfied with this, because applying the principles alone is not enough to ensure people are doing Kanban. Everyone is where they are, and many want to change in an evolutionary way, while encouraging acts of leadership. Most of them however are not doing Kanban!

See the flow! One way to visualise work in progress
Simple you say - just adopt the principles and start doing the Kanban core practices (see "There are 6 core practices of Kanban"). But this is also unsatisfactory. The practices are not all followed by those who are doing Kanban. Not everyone uses a visual board (or other visualisation) yet. Not everyone has WIP limits yet. Not everyone has explicit policies yet. Unlike Scrum which says that if you are not doing all of Scrum you are not doing Scrum, Kanban describes itself as a way to improve from whatever you are doing now. As +David Anderson makes clear, even such "proto-kanban" implementations bring benefit, and these partial or shallow implementations of Kanban do fall under the banner of Kanban.

So how can we express the missing element to the foundational principles? I think the answer is to explain the starting viewpoint. Before applying the foundational principles of Kanban, and before you've started doing its core practices, change your viewpoint...

The Starting Viewpoint: Look at your work as Flow.

Notice this viewpoint statement isn't asking you to do anything yet, except look. Just look in a different way and you'll be amazed what you see. Seeing work as flow - items moving from an initial concept through one or more other stages to "done" may not seem that profound. Yet it opens up a completely different way to analyse and manage work. Furthermore as a starting point it means you can look back on work recently done and collect data relating to the flow, even before any aspect of the process has been changed. You can ask:
  1. How long did this item take from concept to delivery?
  2. How many items were completed in the period?
  3. How many items are currently being worked on?
  4. How long is the time between deliveries?
The answers to such questions are likely to highlight the issues the business cares about or is dissatisfied with. From there finding the insight to make improvements is a natural process. As I found recently with a team I am working with, there's usually data about the flow of work available from the recent or even distant past. Looking at that data again through the viewpoint of flow will show you what you can improve and importantly, whether you have improved once you have made changes.

I'm grateful to +Rodrigo Yoshima whose abstract for Lean Kanban North America 2013 on Management and Change used the phrase "Lean Flow Paradigm". It was the trigger for this post. His slide-share for the presentation is available here, and it's well worth a look for examples of how seeing work as flow helps teams and management to improve things.


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