The Kanban Maturity Model part 1: Appropriateness


The KMM grew out of a need for better coaching tools and more consistent outcomes when consultants, enterprise coaches, and change agents are advising clients about the use and application of Kanban in their workplaces. 

The Kanban Maturity Model (KMM) came about through the convergence of several ideas, trends and observations in the market over a ten-year period. The convergence of observed patterns of Kanban implementation, together with an understanding of appropriateness of kanban board designs and practice adoption mapped to organizational maturity, and the need for a map of the breadth and depth of the Kanban Method, converged to give us the KMM. The KMM grew out of a need for better coaching tools and more consistent outcomes when consultants, enterprise coaches and change agents are advising clients about the use and application of Kanban in their workplaces.
Kanban comes with a promise of consistent business outcomes, improved service delivery, satisfied customers, happier, more fulfilled workers, and in general a set of contented stakeholders from senior managers, owners and benefactors, to regulatory authorities and politicians. However, achieving these results with consistency has proven problematic in the wider, general market – it turns out that simply reading some blogs, articles and perhaps an occasional book, coupled to watching some conference videos, or even taking basic training wasn’t enough realize the full potential: better coaching tools were needed to enable a consistent level of advice and guidance at scale from a broad range of coaches, consultants and change agents.

The KMM is the best tool we have so far for delivering on this vision of businesses that consistently meet customer expectations, without over-stressing their workforce or cutting legal or regulatory corners.

Developing Kanban Coaches

In October 2009, I introduced the Kanban Coaching Masterclass, initially a 3-day advanced training, with the aim of creating a class of advisors who were capable of speaking knowledgeably about the application and implementation of the Kanban Method. Since then the class curriculum has gone through 3 major revisions, or 4 generations. The initial curriculum was obviated by the publication of my book, Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business, in the spring of 2010. Immediately, the class pivoted to focus on “material not described in the book.” And with this change, came a new focus and required skill for a consultant advising on use of Kanban – the need to give appropriate guidance.

With these tools, Kanban coaches learn how to provide appropriate guidance – to nudge and direct evolutionary change successfully, to minimize resistance to change, “to flow around the rock.”

Consistently, since then, the Kanban Coaching Masterclass has focused on teaching appropriateness: raising awareness of context; improving empathy; providing the coach with a set of lenses and filters through which to view an organization, its people, its culture, and behavior. With these tools, Kanban coaches learn how provide appropriate guidance – to nudge and direct evolutionary change successfully, to minimize resistance to change, “to flow around the rock.”

At the coarsest granularity, the appropriateness question is, “Is Kanban an appropriate choice for this organization? Do they wish to pursue evolutionary change?”
You don’t sell evolutionary change to a revolutionary leader. Generally, you don’t sell evolutionary change to the impatient, and those in a hurry, with a perceived deadline. This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t work, nor does evolutionary change take too long to make a significant difference. We know from empirical observation that it can and does work quickly and in crisis situations. However, you don’t sell evolutionary change to someone who doesn’t believe it will work. As kanban systems are “pull systems”, sponsors for adoption of Kanban must pull the change. The joke in the Kanban book concerning the number of psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb, where the answer is “only 1 but the lightbulb really has to want to change!” contains wise advice.

So, for almost a decade we’ve been training advisors not to introduce Kanban in places where it is unlikely to succeed.

The Kanban Lens

The appropriate use of a virtual kanban systems in professional services, knowledge worker, creative businesses, is to apply the kanban system to a service delivery workflow. If you aren’t implementing Kanban to services, then your implementation is most likely inappropriate. The Kanban Method requires that you view your organization as a network or ecosystem of interdependent services.

We don’t advocate reorganization into a network or shared services unless that already exists. Instead, we encourage people to see the service delivery that is already there – often spanning across organizational units, departments and teams. Wherever you can see a service, you can “Kanban” that service! Services can be offered by individuals, in which case, a simple personal kanban board may suffice, or services can be offered to external customers involving many interdependent services across an entire business unit. So, the scale of a service can be tiny involving an individual or huge involving hundreds of people.

At large scale, breaking up a single customer-facing service into a network of services provided internally creates simplicity, and enables simple kanban board solutions for each service. Being able to see services, to see the network of interdependent services, and to create kanban board solutions for each independently, is application of appropriateness of Kanban.

Implementing the right mix of Kanban Cadences feedback mechanisms to enable the network to provide effective customer service, and deliver within expectations, is another application of appropriateness within Kanban. An experienced Kanban coach can help you see services, and advise you on the appropriate scope and scale, and the appropriate use of feedback mechanisms to drive evolutionary change and incremental improvement.


Many attendees of the Kanban Coaching Masterclass have described the experience as life or career-changing. One such attendee was Mike Burrows. Mike had the epiphany that the Kanban Method was built upon a value system, and he set about exploring what those values were. With the unveiling of the Kanban Values in 2013, we had a new tool for assessing appropriateness: coaches could now explore the existing value system within an organization and compare it to the Kanban Values. The stronger the match, the more likely for Kanban to be successful within the organization.

Mike continued to explore this direction and eventually, it led to the emergence of his Agendashift technique for managing organizational change. Agendashift effectively spun out of the Kanban Method by means of exploring appropriateness of advice and guidance for adoption.

An experienced Kanban coach can help you see services, and advise you on the appropriate scope and scale, and use of feedback mechanisms to drive evolutionary change and incremental improvement.

Avoiding the rocks

In 2009, Joe Campbell, blogged that “Kanban Should Be Like Water.” He was referencing the philosophy and teachings of the expert in Chinese Martial Arts, Bruce Lee. Lee is best known for his own brand of “Kung Fu” and his career as an actor, in fact, studied philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Like the Kanban Method, his approach to teaching martial arts, later named, Jeet Kune Do, was developed in Seattle. Lee’s philosophy was deeply influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. The references to water mostly come from Taoism. “Water flows around the rock,” was part of his guidance – don’t meet resistance head-on, try to flow around it, and then counter-attack.

The rock is a metaphor for resistance – in Lee’s case, the resistance of an opponent in a fight. For us, the metaphor of the rock, translates into resistance to change from the people in the workplace. So, our first lesson from Bruce Lee, is that we should seek to advise on changes that will not meet with resistance, or where the resistance can be anticipated amongst only a few people, who play specific roles within the organization. It is more appropriate to go around the rock than to meet it head-on.

KMM Transition practices are known to invoke less resistance. They either flow around the most prominent rocks or they help to smooth them away.

Extending the metaphor, over time, water erodes the rock, smoothing it away. More advanced Kanban coaches understand how to introduce changes that have this smoothing effect, gradually eroding resistance to needed changes. We’ve tried to capture some of these with the mapping of the “transition practices” in the model. Transition practices are known to invoke less resistance. They either flow around the most prominent rocks or they help to smooth them away.

Identity Wins!

Where does the resistance come from?
The former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, would remind people, “All politics is local!” If you want to get anything done, if you want to be re-elected, if you want to have the mandate to make a change, then you must understand how an issue and a proposed policy affects people locally, in your constituency: how it affects their daily lives.

In the same vein, I teach Kanban coaches that “if all politics is local, then all change is personal!” To affect change, we must understand how it effects individuals, personally. To do that, we must understand their identity, as best we can. We must understand the self-image of individuals, how they derive their self-esteem, and their ego – what makes them tick, what motivates them. This is non-trivial and has many social components to it. Equally, we must recognize that the workplace is tribal and consists or both formal and informal social groups. These groups also have their own sense of identity, and membership of these groups, provides a sense of belonging to individuals and strongly affects their sense of self-worth, and self-esteem.

As soon as we recommend changing something that affects the identity of an individual or a social group of which they are a member, we run the risk raising resistance to change. In fact, the probability is extremely high – if we touch an identity-related aspect of the workplace, then we will meet with resistance. The key to uncovering the rocks of resistance is to recognize the people and their tribes and do as much as possible to understand their identities: what are the artifacts and behaviors to which they will cling almost to the death? These are the rocks.

Appropriate guidance suggests changes that avoid the rocks. Appropriate guidance introduces new behaviors, practices and tools that help individuals adjust and adopt new a new identity.

The Kanban Method has always been about the pursuit of this humane, gentle approach to change – identity change is not brutally forced upon people through inconsiderate reorganization or retraining and the imposition of a new job title, new role or new responsibilities.

Synthesizing appropriateness

If we combine these ideas, we develop a powerful coaching toolset that is perhaps best illustrated by example:
If we value customer satisfaction then we gain a sense of purpose from customer service: culturally, we are a contributor society, we give altruistically in the name of happy customers, appropriately satisfied. With this value, it becomes possible, to develop a formal or informal social group of collaborators, who serve that customer. With an end-to-end kanban board for service delivery, we provide a means for that group to meet, socialize, collaborate, and transparently see their contribution and that of others towards the goal of delivering to the customer. Collectively, there is a sense of self, as a collective, and a sense of self-worth and self-esteem, from a job well done, a delivery made, a customer satisfied.

With the right leadership, the right values in place, and a clear understanding of who is the customer, what did they ask us for, what are their expectations, and how well have we satisfied those expectations, it is possible to achieve the business outcome that maps to organizational maturity level 3 in the KMM. This can be achieved without reorganizations, without giving individuals new identities or new roles, rather simply creating the circumstances for collaboration and the basic human trait of altruistic behavior coupled with a sense of belonging and a sense of achievement both individually and as a collective.

In Conclusion

With the KMM, we’ve codified organizational maturity and leadership maturity. We have provided a means through observable business outcomesobservable practices, and behaviors, and espoused and recognized values and cultural norms, to make an assessment of the maturity level of an organization and its leaders. We have then mapped the Kanban practices, designs and patterns that have been shown to work at those levels. We have codified the paths around the most likely rocks of emotional, personal, identity related resistance that is likely at each level. Some of these rocks are harder to move or harder to smooth away than others: to reach level 3, there is a fundamental need to value customer service, for altruistic behavior, and the emergence of a contributor society.

There is a need to communicate a sense of why, to give a purpose to the labor of the workers and to unify and align them behind delivery of a shared goal, to craft a true team from a group of individuals. If the leadership and culture are missing, if the leadership of the organization is primarily selfish, self-centered, self-serving and tribal in nature then reaching level 3 may be impossible. 

The Kanban Maturity Model is a tool to improve coaching guidance given by advisors. We believe it will make a dramatic difference in the rate of success when applying the Kanban Method in organizations pursuing evolutionary improvement.

It is not a panacea or a silver bullet. It will not compensate for inadequate leadership or organizational dysfunction. However, it will help to expose and illuminate such issues. Understanding and recognition are the first steps on the journey to change. The KMM provides a map and a path and a means to establish where you are, where you might go next and how to get there. If you keep in mind, that the KMM’s primary purpose is to advise on the appropriateness of practice adoption, you are most likely to find value in it, and success with it. In Part 2 of the KMM Story, I will look at patterns of kanban design and how we observed them correlating with tangible business outcomes.

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