What Kanban Coaches Do, and Don't Do

Posted on August 28, 2012 by David Anderson

I’m realizing that predominantly Agile coaches/consultants have a lot of misunderstanding about what it takes to be a Kanban coach. Consequently, they believe that Kanban is just another method they can deploy using the same coaching/consulting techniques they use for Agile methods. This assumption would be wrong. Not just a little wrong - completely wrong! As a result of this assumption some Agile coaches wishing to offer Kanban as part of their services and as a tool in their toolbox, may be undervaluing the utility of attending my 3-day Advanced Kanban Masterclass for coaches, consultants and managers.

What’s more interesting is that I don’t observe the same bias in consultants from a different background such as CMMI, Six Sigma, Lean (manufacturing), Theory of Constraint, Program or Risk Management. They don’t arrive with the mindset that “Kanban is just another Agile method. So all I need to do is learn the mechanics and deploy it like Scrum or TDD.” This is good because you cannot (or at least, should not) deploy Kanban like Scrum or TDD.

So what exactly do Kanban coaches do, and more importantly what don’t they do?...

Stop Advocating! Stop Evangelizing! Observe Instead

Perhaps the biggest challenge teaching an Agile coach to be a Kanban consultant is to get them to stop advocating a position and stop evangelizing Agile methods and practices. At its worst Agile is a religion - a belief system with zealots who are beyond logical reasoning or debate. They have blind faith that Agile is better. Even worse is that they may believe that they have been sent to convert the heathen and turn them into true believers. These more extreme Agile coaches may never make the transition to coaching Kanban. They simply can’t let go and take a more neutral stance, by observing current processes and current challenges and recommending a appropriate course of action.

Kanban coaches don’t advocate or evangelize. They observe and advise.

There Is No Judgment in Kanban

A Kanban coach must never judge. The current situation is what it is and it got to be that way because of the current people, their circumstances and the demands of their customers. Wishing it were different is not useful. Criticizing because current practices are not aligned with a trendy modern approach or with a belief system is disrespectful.

Kanban consultants respect the current situation and do not pass judgment upon it.

Is Kanban Appropriate?

Good Kanban consultants make a situational assessment to establish whether Kanban is appropriate or not. We spend perhaps half a day of training on this topic. I’ve given key note speeches advising when Kanban might be appropriate. The summary is that kanban systems offer deferred commitment, control of variability in flow, elimination of over-burdening, reduction of multi- tasking, and better alignment with high level risk management decisions regarding allocation of supply against various competing demands. If any of these things are problems in the current process, such as committing too early and then failing to delilver against a promise, then a (virtual) kanban system might help.

The full Kanban Method uses virtual kanban systems and several other practices to create an evolutionary capability within an organization and promotes evolutionary change. This is useful in complex domain situations that are almost always present in knowledge work.

A good Kanban coach assesses whether Kanban is appropriate before recommending it! You don’t ‘sell’ an evolutionary approach to a revolutionary client. Situational awareness is a critical skill for Kanban coaches.

Kanban Should Be Like Water

Water flows around the rock. The rock is emotional resistance to change - change that will lead to better economic and social outcomes for all stakeholders and lead to better satisfaction all round. Kanban coaches learn how to anticipate emotional resistance - to identify the rocks before they design and deploy a kanban system process solution.

Kanban coaches avoid rocks initially! Where a rock cannot be avoided they design the kanban system to raise awareness and create emotional motivation for change. Water smooths out rocks over time. Good Kanban coaches know that it takes only one of them to change a lightbulb, but the lightbulb must really want to change. Creating the circumstances for self-motivated change is the work of great Kanban coaches.

(Virtual) Kanban Systems Design Is An Advanced Skill

Great Kanban coaches know they must not try to force change that will meet with resistance. They must avoid designing a (virtual) kanban system that fixes all the dynamic system problems they may have identified from initial observation. Perhaps the solution to over-burdening - introducing WIP limits - will meet with resistance? This resistance can be predicted by understanding the emotions of those involved - how such a change affects their self-image, self-esteem, ego, social status, or other psychological or sociological elements.

The art and science of great (virtual) kanban system design for knowledge work processes is knowing where to stop and knowing how to create a situation that will raise awareness and create motivation so that the next step can be taken.

Identifying Quality Kanban Consulting

It is for all these reasons that we teach an intensive 3-day Kanban coaching class that assumes the attendees already know all the material from the 2-day class and from the Kanban book. The 3-days are not a refresh on the 2-days plus an extra day, they are 3-days of learning new coaching skills.

Because Kanban coaching is such a special set of skills and so decidedly different from Agile coaching, Lean-Kanban University has created a professional designation, a trustmark, so that clients can identify those known to be good, trustworthy, competent Kanban coaches and consultants. For this reason the Kanban Coaching Professional (KCP) designation has been introduced and my 3-day Advanced Kanban Masterclass is the prescribed educational prerequisite for achieving KCP status.


If you are interested in taking a 3-day Advanced Kanban Masterclass for coaches, consultants and managers leading Lean change, we list them on our Events page. You will be very welcome.