Driving Evolutionary Change with the Kanban Method


This is part 4 of my series looking at Kanban, organizational maturity and evolutionary change. If you haven’t yet read parts 1 to 3, you can catch up here: Part 1: Organizational Maturity & the J-Curve Effect; Part 2: Patterns of Kanban Maturity; Part 3 – Kanban Patterns & Organizational Maturity. This series is intended to highlight the skills and expertise of Kanban Coaching Professionals (KCPs) who have completed their education through the Kanban Coaching Professional Masterclass, then completed a period of field experience, submitted an essay describing their experiences and change initiatives in which they’ve played a leadership role, finally, they’ve submitted to a panel interview of existing KCPs in order to complete the program and be nominated as a new KCP by their peers. We correlate strong improvement results and successful change initiatives with the involvement of KCPs. Success isn’t an accident, KCPs deploy a number of models in their engagements with clients and have access to the broad community of peers through online forums and face-to-face events such as the Kanban Leadership Retreat global series of consultants’ camp format conferences. If you seek to improve your organization in an evolutionary fashion consider training your change leaders as KCPs or bringing an existing KCP into your team to coach your change initiative.


So far in this series, we’ve sought to understand how to assess organizational maturity, different styles of kanban boards and kanban systems, and we’ve seen how different styles of proto-Kanban or Kanban systems are more suitable for different levels of organizational maturity. From this understanding, it is evident why we have so much diversity in the market and how initial Kanban implementations were at maturity levels 3 through 5 while much of the market is at levels 1 and 2. This explains the 80%+ of market adoption at, in some cases, very simplistic levels of proto-Kanban. We also looked at why organizational maturity matters and its benefits – predictability, risk management, robustness and anti-fragility. This post looks at how you move up the maturity ladder and how you deepen your Kanban implementation in order to gain the benefits of higher levels. Like anything worth achieving, gaining higher levels of organizational maturity requires a little stress. The coaching skill is to know how much stress and of which type to produce effective results. Each time we invoke a little stress we invoke a small j-curve effect. The trick is for the stress to be enough to motivate the change without it being too much to result in a regression. Figure 1 is taken from the first post in the series and acts as a reminder on the 5 levels of organizational maturity.

Figure 1. Organizational Maturity Model

Catalyzing Evolutionary Change

Figure 2 shows the cartoon form the cover of Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business. The cartoon was intended to communicate the essence of the Kanban Method in a single picture. It contains all the elements required to catalyze improvements.

Figure 2. “Kanban In Action” from the cover of Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business

In the cartoon, in figure 2, a team is meeting in front of their Kanban board. It is evident from the conversation and the image of tickets on the board behind them that not everything is going well for them. Something is creating stress for them, the meeting is a means for them to reflect together on what is happening, and the fourth character shows an act of leadership and suggests that they “do something about it.” The cartoon contains all three elements we require for evolutionary improvement: a stressor; a reflection mechanism; and leadership.

Formula to Drive Evolutionary Improvement

Figure 3 shows the organizational maturity model, together with the formula to drive evolutionary improvements and some indications of how the elements manifest differently as the organization matures and their Kanban implementation deepens.
Formula to drive evolutionary change:

  1. a stressor
  2. a reflection mechanism
  3. leadership

Figure 3. Driving Evolutionary Change Across Maturity Levels

The most commonly understood concept of a stressor with Kanban is a WIP limit which causes stress when workers find themselves idle, often for many reasons beyond their own control, reasons that can by systemic and just chance, or reasons that are external and assignable to a specific root cause. Regardless, idleness, or “slack”, creates stress.

The most commonly understood concept of a reflection mechanism is the Kanban Meeting. Kanban meetings are as a default recommendation held daily in front of the board. The specific cadence of the meeting is contextual. The frequency affects the number of opportunities for process changes and hence evolutionary action. What is not material to the mechanism of evolution. It is that the meeting happens at all that matters. The effectiveness of evolutionary change will be affected by frequency and it is important to tune it to the environment – often enough to make a difference – seldom enough to ensure new information is available since the last meeting.

The 3rd Change Management Principle of the Kanban Method is to “encourage acts of leadership at every level.” It is important that acts of leadership can and do happen at reflection opportunities. A Kanban Meetin where there is no leadership because the attendees do not feel empowered to make changes is a poorly designed meeting – a poorly designed reflection mechanism. It falls partly to the coach to encourage acts of leadership and to work with middle and senior management to ensure that reflection mechanisms are adequately designed so that leadership can and does happen.

As a general rule, if improvement suggestions are not coming out of your reflection mechanism then they are poorly designed – consider working with a Kanban Coaching Professional to improve them.

Driving Up Organizational Maturity Through Evolutionary Change

The choice of stressor and reflection mechanism must be tuned to the organizational maturity and the context.

Maturity Level 1

In the depths of maturity level 1, where you essentially have little organization, or collaborative effort, individuals can use both the visualization of their personal kanban boards and their WIP limits as their personal stressors. It is important individuals take time to reflect on how well things are working for them and consider personal improvements.

Often, for many low maturity organizations and contexts with difficult political situations, visualization and increased transparency is a stressor. There is no need for a WIP limit to create stress – just shine a light on the current issues with visualization. This will create stress, engage people emotionally and motivate changes.

What if any form of visualization will create too much stress?

There are circumstances where visualization is not an easy or possible choice. This can happen in more mature but dysfunctional organizations. We have seen examples of Vice Presidents of PMOs ripping down Portfolio Kanban boards in a rage. Some insecure middle-managers do not appreciate transparency. Often their self-esteem is rooted in the power of controlling information. Too much transparency weakens their power base, diminishes their self-esteem, attacks their self-image, and fills them with fear that things are out-of-control. They exist in a personally-framed world where controlling information flow, represents the concept that things are under control.
For Kanban coaches facing the circumstance where visualization represents too much stress, the recommendation is to start with other aspects and practices of the Kanban Method. Specifically, the recommendation is to start with “make policies explicit.”

Are there known side-effects of “making policies explicit?”

Not every organization is ready to have their policies made explicit. Sometimes making a policy explicit is a matter of visualizing it. If they aren’t ready for visualization then they aren’t ready too many policies becoming explicit. Explicit policies are also an enabler of empowerment. In general we want this. Explicit policies raise the social capital of the organization. There is a trust dividend: more explicit policies, more empowerment, faster, better decisions, less delay, avoided cost of delay, better economic performance. However, again some managers, view empowering subordinates as dangerous, or an outright attack on their own identities that diminishes their self-esteem and undermines their self-image. There are counter-measures for this: encourage senior leadership to intervene as mentors for managers who must create more empowerment; create a culture where reward comes from “work yourself out of a job”; balance empowering explicit policies with metrics and feedback loops demonstrating that things are working within agreed boundaries.

“Making policies explicit” is also known, from some results in behavioral economics, to encourage diversity of opportunity. Explicit policies are a social leveling mechanism. In any social structure, where there is a hierarchy, even if implicit, more explicit policies will create a leveling. There will be winners and losers. Gneezy and List have shown that employers with more explicit policies on pay, benefits and obligations, have greater diversity or opportunity – for example, fairer, more equal pay for women, and more women in higher positions. So when you play with a mechanism that creates broader, more equal opportunity, it is inevitable their will be losers. Those who lose out socially may not buy into the greater goals enabled by equal opportunity and diversity of contribution. If you run into this level of resistance, we have to view it as beyond the scope of the Kanban Method and venturing into broader cultural issues most likely beyond the parameters of the individual firm or employer into the broader society it is part of.

It is always difficult to give broad coaching guidance on Kanban and change leadership for a global audience because of societal variations. Some elements of the human condition are invariant – if someone may lose social status from a change, they are likely to resist. This is a global truth. However, whether a particular attribute of an existing system or culture gives someone an advantage is a starting condition which needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, by the coach, in situ.

The case, of the VP of PMO in a rage pulling down a Portfolio Kanban board, happened in an otherwise extremely liberal rapidly growing startup on the West Coast of the USA. Knowing the company culture, you wouldn’t predict the outcome and resistance. This was a matter for the individual and not the wider business. It’s really impossible to give coaches a universal toolbox for avoiding and overcoming resistance to change.

Visualization, Kanban Meetings & Personal WIP Limits

The most common stressor and reflection mechanisms at maturity level 1 are the use of a board to visualize work and workflow, a Kanban meeting often at a team level, though perhaps at a wider, workflow level, in the higher reaches of maturity level 1, and the use of per person WIP limits. To be honest, I am not convinced the per person WIP Limits are a stressor, in fact they have the opposite effect, they provide relief. The relief from over-burdening creates the opportunity for reflection. So at maturity level 1 we are relying mostly on visualization and perhaps explicit policies to create stress, while a regular meeting in front of the board, coupled to per person WIP limits creates the reflection necessary to drive improvements.

Maturity Level 2

At maturity level 2, we now have the predictability of the process. We have a concept of a customer, customer requested work, and a workflow. We now have a chain of knowledge workers collaborating on a series of activities. The stressor is now the kanban system – the WIP limits on the columns on the board. While the Kanban Meeting continues as a core element of the method and is clearly a reflection mechanism and feedback loop, we now see direct interaction with the customer and the people who take delivery and perhaps operate the finished product in a production or field environment, as part of the process. The replenishment meetings and delivery planning meetings now act both as stressors and reflection mechanisms. We should start to see improvement suggestions and process changes happening as a result of these meetings. This becomes even more true as we move up through maturity levels 3 and 4. However, even at maturity level 2, we have a pull system for the first time. This creates a positive tension with the requesters – the customers. Now, they must decide what to work on now, what to leave until later, how much later, and what should be discarded altogether as there isn’t sufficient bandwidth to do everything. Equally, our ability to deliver frequently should start stressing the downstream operations. We should see external changes being catalyzed as a result of our choice to adopt Kanban on our service delivery workflow.

Maturity Level 3

At maturity level 3, metrics become much more important. We now have a formal understanding of customer expectations, and perhaps formal agreements on delivery expectations such as SLAs. We will see the emergence of classes of service in the kanban systems. There is a strong argument that customer expectations, expressed as SLE (service level expectations) or formal SLA (service level agreements) now become a stressor. They will certainly affect, day-to-day operational decisions, on what to pull and where to assign workers and other resources. If you have specific stories describing where you saw metrics drive process evolution, we’d like to hear them. The reflection mechanisms begin to get more advanced with the use of service delivery reviews looking at externally-facing capability metrics, and risk reviews looking at things that affect delivery and capability internally. The scale tends to be at the level of independent service delivery workflows thought we may begin to see the use of coupling of service workflows as a new form of stressor.

Maturity Level 4

Typically two workflows where one services dependent items from the other are decoupled with an unconstrained buffer, or parking lot. As an organization matures and the Kanban implementation scales, these unconstrained buffers are constrained with WIP limits. This creates stress between Kanban systems and necessitates the use of an organization level feedback and reflection mechanism, the Operations Review.
At maturity level 4, buffer sizing on dependent workflows and capacity allocation across work item types and classes of service becomes the important stressor driving organizational improvements and overall improvements in customer service and fitness for purpose. Risk hedging strategies chosen for quite sensible reasons will create stress. For example, there will be pressure to pursue many tactical opportunities at the expense of strategic initiatives. It becomes important for the organization to hold its nerve on row WIP limits. Being able to do so, is an indication of the institutionalization of maturity level 4.

Maturity Level 5

At Maturity Level 5, to provoke further and grander evolutionary change at the business level, we begin to move beyond the scope of the Kanban Method and utilize elements of the Enterprise Services Planning body of knowledge and class curriculum: the comparison of strategy with capability; and the use of strategy reviews as the reflection mechanism to drive change.
At this level, the stressor is a combination of business strategy and business goals. It is important that strategy is balanced to capability and stretches it only just enough that it acts as a positive driver of change, improvement and innovation, rather than simply breaking the organization. Military leaders have understood for centuries that you pick a strategy based on your capability if you wish to be successful. If there is gap between the desired outcome, the strategy required to achieve it, and current capabilities, then they invest in capability first. They do not allow politicians to set them up for failure by recklessly pursuing strategies that cannot be achieved with existing capability. Corporate leaders often do not have this training. They often choose, “big hairy audacious goals”, and believe that doing so, acts as a stressor to drive change. These moonshots are generally never as well resourced and supported as the Apollo program, however. It is much more likely that the operational level management are left clueless as to how they might achieve the requests from their senior leadership. So they simply crack the whip, expect more from an organization not capable of it. What follows is over-burdening, over-reaching, and over-stretching. The result is often a catastrophic failure and perhaps a regression back to maturity level 1 or 2.
Currently, coaching corporate goals and strategy as a reflection of service delivery capabilities is beyond the scope of the Kanban Coaching Professional program. If you are interested in how we use Enterprise Services Planning and the concept of “continually fit for purpose” with our clients, please inquire to Lean Kanban Services for direct consultation and private training.

How far can a coach take us?

A Kanban Coaching Professional (KCP) perhaps working with an Accredited Kanban Trainer (AKT) can take you from mid maturity level 1 all the way to maturity level 5. The higher reaches of maturity level 5 require familiarity with Enterprise Services Planning and specifically the strategy and fitness for purpose subjects in the curriculum. At this time, there are only a small subset of KCPs with this knowledge and experience.

How far can our local Agile coach take us?

Based on the evidence we see in the market, where an Agile coach has not had any specific Kanban training but has some exposure to the method through the community, Agile conferences and perhaps has read some books – most typically a very thin, free book published in 2008, which offers little depth and carries a number of myths and inaccuracies in it – then our observation is that such an Agile coach can start you at the depths of maturity level 1 with Personal Kanban, and take you up to mid maturity level 1 with Team Kanban. Some Agile coaches are capable of taking you to Maturity Level 2 with an Aggregated Team Kanban, proto-Kanban implementation, perhaps exhibiting a few attributes of level 3 or 4 implementations such as rudimentary classes of service and some metrics.
Agile coaches who can take you further will have specific training and experience and are likely to share that with you as part of their marketing materials. They will view themselves as Kanban Coaches.
When evaluating a Kanban coach, ask them what training or certificates they have explicitly in Kanban. Ask them which Lean Kanban conferences they have attended and whether they have ever been a speaker. Ask them which Kanban Leadership Retreat events they have attended and what they learned from the experience. Ask them to show you their community contributions, whether articles on line or in print media or community organization such as Limited WIP Society or Lean Coffee organization in their region. Kanban coaches who can deliver results, can show you this material. Agile coaches who are bluffing and won’t be able to take you where you need to go, will not.


Achieving the benefits for higher levels of organizational maturity can be achieved using the Kanban Method as an approach to improved service delivery and evolutionary change. Someone leading a Kanban initiative needs to be cognizant of the organizational maturity level when choosing the mechanism to drive evolutionary improvement. As the organization matures and the Kanban implementation deepens, the important stressors and reflection mechanisms needed to take the organization further will change. The scope and scale will change. The personnel involved will change and the pay grades of those affected will rise until eventually, we are all the way at the top. Kanban Coaching Professionals are trained to have the skills to design kanban systems and boards that are tuned to the level of organizational maturity and have the correct stressors to catalyze improvement without overstressing the organization and causing a failure of the kanban system and a regression in organizational maturity.
There is a lot of subtlety to coaching Kanban and using it to drive change. There is a reason why there is 10 to 15 days of training plus months or years of field experience required to become effective as a Kanban coach. If you want to succeed at evolutionary change, work with a professional – choose someone with a history of involvement in the Lean Kanban community, someone who has attended the Kanban Coaching Masterclass, someone who is a speaker at Lean Kanban conferences, and someone who attends Kanban Leadership Retreats to share and learn from their peers. We correlate successful results with knowledge and experience.

Learn more…

If you would like to know more about becoming a kanban coach take a look at Kanban University and consider attending our Kanban Coaching Professional training. See listings for details.

Read more…

Part 1: Organizational Maturity & the J-Curve Effect
Part 2: Patterns of Kanban Maturity
Part 3: Kanban Patterns & Organizational Maturity

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