Survivability – Kanban's "Purple Cow"


Seth Godin once suggested that you only get one chance to be a purple cow. A “me too” position with marketing isn’t remarkable or differentiated and doesn’t capture imagination or mind share. If people have already picked a solution they like for a given problem then it is difficult to the point of impossible within economic means to change their minds. If Kanban were just another team level Agile methodology then it wouldn’t be a purple cow – it wouldn’t be remarkable or differentiated. The market has already decided that it likes Scrum as its team level Agile solution. Whether you like Scrum or not is largely irrelevant, the reality is that the market has adopted it and Scrum has filled the pigeon-hole in our minds for a team level Agile methodology. It’s lucky then that Kanban was never intended to be a team level Agile methodology even though some people have sought to characterize it that way.

So what is that makes Kanban remarkable? What gives it a claim to be a purple cow? To answer this we need to examine Kanban’s three agendas – the hidden intent buried behind adoption of The Kanban Method.

Kanban’s Three Agendas

Kanban’s agendas provide the compelling reasons to care. They provide a focus on why we are choosing to adopt it. Transparency of agendas and the focus they provide create alignment – everyone knows why we are doing it. With buy-in to one or more of the agendas, we have a shared motivation for adoption.
When I first started teaching the introduction of Kanban and training coaches, consultants and change agents, I found that I had to train Agilists out of various assumptions and positions and to make them self-aware that they were holding positions, assumptions and even judgments about their clients or workplaces which were not helpful to making progress with evolutionary change or aligned to the value system which underpins the Kanban Method.

Often these coaches and consultants held the assumption was that their job was to “agilize” their client. Furthermore, this came with a number of other assumptions and an agenda. One assumption was that to be agile, to exhibit agility, you had to do Agile. Agile methods were defined as collections of practices and rituals and the job of the coach was therefore to gain traction and institutionalization for these practices and rituals. The agenda was that the organization should be arranged into small teams and that these teams should be cross-functional in nature, containing generalists, broadly skilled workers, or workers with a single specialization but an adequate competency in a broad range of activities (often referred to as “t-shaped” people). This was not helpful and ran against the core tenet of Kanban as an evolutionary approach where you “start with what you do now.” This assumption and agenda assumed it was better to be “doing agile” as a set of working practices and organizational patterns, rather than to “be agile” as a behavioral outcome regardless of how it might be achieved. I wanted to shake these trainee Kanban coaches out of their prejudices and awaken them to the idea that agility is the goal while preconceptions about how to achieve it are naïve and narrow-minded.

Over the years, there have emerged many stories of failed (allegedly Kanban) change initiatives where the consultants first started by attempting to reorganize their client into a network of cross-functional teams. This breaks the first rule of Kanban, that you “start with what you do now.” It isn’t the “first reorganize into small cross-functional teams, then proceed from there” method, rather it is the “start from where you are now” method, regardless of how you are organized or structured. And do so, without judgment!
Initially, I taught that the change agent using the Kanban Method, should assume a neutral stance, like a therapist or psychologist. First ask, what are you unhappy with and want to change? And, what would a successful outcome look like for you, and your customers? By understanding the desired outcome, the Kanban coach can advise and introduce the practices of the Kanban Method in a fashion that steers and guides the evolution of their service delivery processes to produce outcomes that are ever closer to the desired levels. Kanban is change guided by a definition and understanding of, what makes us “fit for purpose”?

However, one Kanban coach, Kurt Hausler, pushed back on my teaching and the position that Kanban coaches have a neutral stance about outcome. It they are using the Kanban Method and the client has asked for a Kanban implementation there must be some underlying assumptions and some agenda to the actions? The discussion that ensued in the community produced the conclusion that there were indeed some agendas behind Kanban coaching. These are now known as the Kanban Agendas. There are currently three agendas recognized as key elements for those coaching Kanban. These three agendas have come to provide a convenient “elevator pitch” to explain, “Why Kanban?”, “Why would I care?” and “How will Kanban benefit me?” Together they represent the remarkable nature of Kanban as a management system. The three agendas are:

  1. Sustainability
  2. Service orientation
  3. Survivability

A proven solution for survivability – this is what makes Kanban a Purple Cow. Its solution for sustainability and improved service delivery across an ecosystem of interdependent services come together with an evolutionary approach to change to provide a solution for survivability. In a rapidly changing business environment, no one wants to lead the next Nokia or the next Motorola mobile phone business. No one wants to be a market leader one minute and gone just five years later. Kanban gives modern businesses adaptive capability and a culture that embraces change. Survivability is Kanban’s Purple Cow!
To understand this, let’s examine each of Kanban’s three agendas and how they work together to deliver a management method that is remarkable.

The Sustainability Agenda

No one expects a barista operating a two filter espresso machine to have 3 cups of coffee in progress – the equipment is only designed for two. Instead, additional demand must wait in line. No one expects a short order chef making omelets at breakfast using 3 frying pans on 3 burners to have a 4th omelet in progress. Instead excess demand waits in line until a pan and burner become available. With physical systems we inherently understand physical limits. Everyone understands the juggling act of plate spinning. As the juggler starts more and more plates spinning on top of tapered poles we all know that eventually the system will become unsustainable. As more and more plates spin, the juggler spends more and more time servicing each one to keep it spinning with a deft wiggle of his wrist to maintain the momentum to prevent it from falling. However, the system is fragile and doesn’t scale, eventually just one more plate set a spinning creates too much overhead. Plates slow and wobble and eventually topple. The juggler becomes chaotic in his movements trying to save plates from falling. The whole system collapses in a spectacular failure due to overburdening. With physical systems and tangible goods we inherently understand overburdening.

Kanban asks us to treat professional services workflows as if they were physical systems and intangible goods as if they were tangible. By visualizing the workflow and the work flowing through it, we create a physical, visual, concrete representation of something that is otherwise intangible, invisible and abstract. The Kanban approach to overburdening is to treat intangible goods as if they were tangible and imagine that the systems for processing them have physical limits. This is grounded in the belief that brains that perform knowledge work do actually have physical limits. If we overburden our brains, and our lines of communication with collaborators then we lose our ability to sustain our processes, and we suffer quality degradation that in some cases is potentially catastrophic. Who remembers the Motorola V60 cell phone? A best seller in its day. Ultimately, Motorola’s PCS division engineering capability wasn’t sustainable. After a series of catastrophic failures where an unmaintainable code base was abandoned, they decided to outsource and buy their operating system and other software systems. Just a few years later, the division was sold to Google and a few short years after that the brand was dead and gone. A business that once employed over 30,000 people was gone, in large part due to over-burdening and how it affected the long term survivability of the business.

The Japanese call overburdening, “muri”. It is one of the 3 types of waste identified in the Toyota Production System. Kanban systems prevent “muri”: they prevent overburdening. The kanbans in the system limit the work-in-progress. The goal is to set a the number of kanbans to a reasonable quantity so that the invisible process workflow for making intangible goods is constrained within reasonable limits.

If you seek to drive improvement in your organization using the Kanban Method, you are making a commitment to the use of (virtual) kanban systems. In doing so, you have the intent to limit work-in-progress and avoid overburdening your workers and the system of work. Limiting work-in-progress makes working sustainable and provides the opportunity for workers to complete tasks with high quality and pride of workmanship.

Using a kanban system respects the human limits of knowledge workers and  accepts that professional services workflows have limits beyond which they aren’t sustainable or fit for purpose. When you choose Kanban, you inherently have an agenda to end overburdening in your workplace, creating a sustainable environment where people and their good work can thrive and grow.

Sustainability isn’t differentiating

Sustainability is an agenda that is shared with the Agile software development movement. They call it “sustainable pace.” It often appeals to individual knowledge workers and their immediate supervisors and team leads. While everyone involved in a business from its owners and shareholders to its senior leadership, middle-management, down to its departments of individual contributors ought to care about sustainability, it tends to be the workers who care most. Sustainability appeals most to those who feel the stress and strain of over-burdening. It appeals most to those in the front line facing customers and having to deal with quality or service delivery problems.

Kanban’s approach to sustainability, of limiting knowledge work in progress, is undoubtedly different from most Agile software development methods such as Scrum which instead seek to limit the quantity of work which can be completed in a given time period, and organize work in batches, to be completed in strict boxes of time known as Sprints. A sprint is typically two weeks in length. Overburdening is controlled if the amount of work committed for the sprint is achievable within the allotted time. Sustainability is therefore a factor of guessing how much work can be achieved in the time period. This is attempted using an estimation technique and dedicating perhaps half a day in every 10 working days to estimation and agreement on what will or will not fit within the next two weeks. This method of controlling overburdening requires speculation and attempting to be deterministic about how much effort is involved in any given item before that item is actually undertaken. It also requires speculation about how much time the team and its individuals will be able to dedicate to value-adding work, during the time period. The Scrum approach to controlling overburdening requires speculation and guess work. There is plenty of evidence that this is problematic with many organizations reporting that they regularly miss their sprint commitment, meaning they fail to complete the work they estimated and promised, around 50% of the time. Late in 2014, I visited a division of a large telecom and internet equipment manufacturer located in suburban Boston. They had a total of 12 Scrum teams in the business unit. Every team had missed its sprint commitment for the past 22 sprints. In other words, in this ~600 person business unit there was a total failure to control overburdening using Scrum.

It would be easy to conclude then that Kanban’s approach to avoiding overburdening, is simpler, less time-consuming and much more effective. In other words, it is a superior approach to overburdening. Whether you accept this or not is mostly irrelevant. You don’t get the opportunity to be the second purple cow.  The market has, at least for the time-being, chosen Scrum as its solution to this problem and appears, for now, to be happy with it despite the reported problems.

The pursuit of sustainability doesn’t differentiate Kanban in the software development world but it offers a solution for sustainability across a wide range of professional services work, and a single unifying management system for creative and knowledge worker businesses.

The Service Orientation Agenda

Your organization consists of an ecosystem of interdependent services. If this statement resonates with you then thinking in services and bringing a service-oriented approach to how you organize, motivate, measure and manage your business is likely to improve its performance, keeping it sustainable and enhancing its survivability.

The second agenda, Service Orientation, should be the clearest and most explicit in modern organizations – we are here to provide services to customers, and where everyone in the organization, every department and every service focuses on this, the organization itself will achieve outstanding results as a consequence. Service orientation needs to be an agenda often because organizations have lost sight of it. In some examples, I’ve seen, and others reported by Kanban coaches and community leaders, the service orientation of larger companies can be very poor – instead the siloed functional orientation is so strong, often workers are working without sight of the true customer, their needs or expectations. People can be disenfranchised. They don’t have skin in the game, because they aren’t even aware of what the game is – to provide goods and services that are fit-for-purpose delivered in a manner that is fit-for-purpose. By doing so, their business is positioned for (the next agenda) survivability.

Service orientation isn’t differentiating

Like sustainability, service orientation also isn’t unique or differentiating for Kanban. For many years now there has been ITIL (an acronym which bizarrely stands for, Information Technology Infrastructure Library) which takes a service oriented approach to the provision of IT services. Rightly or wrongly, ITIL is seldom associated with agility and adaptability and many implementations would struggle to show alignment with the Kanban Values. Kanban can be seen as an “Agile ITIL” and within the IT services sector this is valid, useful and offers a simple elevator pitch. However, thinking of Kanban as an “Agile ITIL” is simplistic, naïve, narrow and limiting. Kanban asks us to think of our entire business as an ecosystem of interdependent services and it offers us a single unifying management system for all creative and knowledge worker activities within and across our organization.
Service orientation is an agenda that appeals most to middle-managers, those tasked with effective service delivery and customer satisfaction. With more transparency and collaboration and using the practices of Kanban that create greater engagement, the often disconnected and disenfranchised individual contributors can come to care more about it too. In combination with sustainability, they gain a greater sense of purpose and derive greater fulfillment from their work. Senior leaders can also be disengaged from service delivery. Perhaps they subscribe to the Captain Picard school of management, and issue the order, “make it so!” to their middle-managers, leaving the detail to them and taking the results for granted. However, senior leaders could and should care about service orientation, it provides them with a simple, single, unifying way to see the complexity of their business and a simple, single and unifying method for managing that complex network of interdependent services. At the same time, service delivery that is “fit for purpose” is a sure fire method of insuring the business thrives and survives in an uncertain and volatile business, economic and political environment. The interaction of service orientation and how good service delivery plays a role in survivability is discussed in the next section, the Survivability Agenda.

The Survivability Agenda

What does it take for an organization to survive and thrive in times of significant change? Senior leaders who pride themselves on their abilities as strategists hold the responsibility for positioning a business for its long term survival. Often those senior executives, particularly if they are owners, founders, or family members, have a deeply emotional attachment to the legacy that they will leave behind through a business set up to survive and thrive for decades to come.

A pattern that I see increasingly is the older senior leader, often an owner, or even a founder of a business, who is bamboozled by the speed the market moves, by insurgent players with disruptive innovation, and the amazing pace of change, fueled by the ability for information to flow rapidly and globally via social media, as customers change their preferences, markets move, political regimes and regulatory regimes change, and economic cycles come and go with ever shorter cycle times.

The strategic challenge in the 21st Century isn’t how to be the smartest, or how to pick the best position in a competitive market, or how to acquire capital and scale to be “too big to fail.” Instead the strategic challenge is one of creating an adaptive organization that is capable of sensing existential changes and responding internally by mutating the organization, its products and services and its service delivery capabilities faster than competitors, and faster than the external world is changing. If you want to be in a position to create the future and control your destiny then you need to be able to move quickly, to change rapidly and to do so in a controlled, mature and reasoned fashion.

The Kanban Method is an approach to evolutionary change that uses visualization and virtual kanban systems to catalyze change in professional services businesses. This raises the question, how do you know whether a change is an improvement? Nature and evolution have solved this problem for us. In the simplest of terms, perhaps overly simplistically, species mutate randomly and mutations survive and thrive if they are fitter for their environment than their predecessors. Evolution is in the simplest of senses the “survival of the fittest.”

When thought of this way, we can ask, what makes our services “fitter” in their environment? In business the environment is defined and controlled by external factors: customers; governments; regulators; competitors; geography; languages; weather patterns; environmental issues; fads, fashions, trends and seasonal or cyclical shifts. For our professional services businesses to survive and thrive, we must determine what criteria are used to make selections in the market. – in the eyes of our customers, what makes our services and service delivery “fit for purpose?” What are the criteria for selection? And given the criteria at what threshold levels do we become “fit for purpose” and what further levels provide a differentiating advantage?

In this way, the pursuit of evolutionary change, initially as a means to enable successful, institutionalized change, with low friction and little resistance, can be coupled to the service-orientation to provide a strategic solution for long term survivability. The Kanban Method enables what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “Antifragility” – the ability to change and improve when placed under stress.

Evolutionary change isn’t differentiating

Evolutionary change isn’t a differentiated position for Kanban. Like service-orientation and sustainability, there are other management methods that offer the pursuit of evolutionary change: the Theory of Constraints’ Five Focusing Steps; A3; Toyota Kata; and most recently Mike Burrows’ Agendashift, are all methods that offer a “start with what you do now” approach to change. However, taking it further and tying evolutionary theory and fitness, as the selection criteria for survival, together with service-orientation and sustainability, gives the Kanban Method its differentiated and compelling place in the market today. The Kanban Method overs a simple single unifying management system that enables all three of these objectives in a scale-free manner – meaning that the way we teach Kanban and the way we use it remains consistent across all three objectives of sustainability, service-orientation and survivability.


Each agenda works on its own, it offers a compelling though not entirely differentiated reason to adopt Kanban and each appeals to a slightly different audience: sustainability with individual contributors; service orientation with middle management; and survivability with senior leaders. However, together the three agendas are stronger, they reinforce each other, and together they give the Kanban Method a unique strength as a system of management– a simple, single, unifying system for operational management for complex modern businesses operating in complex, fast-moving, unpredictable, uncertain environments. Combining sustainability with service orientation and evolutionary change to create a repeatable method for survivability is what makes Kanban a “purple cow.”

[This blog post is extracted and adapted from chapter 3 of the of the forthcoming book, The Guide to Essential Kanban, by David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael]

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