Monthly Archives: September 2011

Is Kanban really Agile?

Short Answer

Honestly, it doesn’t matters. If it helps an organization create value for its customers in a way that allows employees to experience freedom while solving challenging problems, it doesn’t matter what label the method carries! But, that would be too short a response.

Longer Answer

One way to decide if something should wear the label “agile” is to look at how it reflects the values stated in the Agile Manifesto. Of the Agile Manifesto statements, this is how Kanban values the “items on the left” over those on the right.

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

The visibility that Kanban provides to teams is a key contributor to facilitating interaction amongst individuals. The kanban board gives visibility to impediments that individuals are encountering makes resolving the impediment of prime importance.

Unlike Scrum, Kanban does not explicitly encourage generalization of skill sets. While Kanban does not force you to have a role for every queue, it is often easy to start by mapping the roles to queues and then inspect the bottlenecks and address those by helping the team develop more generalized skills.

Kanban is not a tool or a process that supersedes the importance of the individuals and their interactions. Yes, Kanban provides a lot of metrics that can be used to inform planning. However, the metrics are to facilitate interaction among team members, between team and stakeholders, and between team and customers.

Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

When using Kanban to produce software, there are specific characteristics of Kanban that allow you to value working software over comprehensive documentation; small batches, WIP limits, measuring and managing flow. Perhaps your workflow will have a step or steps related to creating documentation.

Kanban does not prescribe working software, other than through mapping your value stream. If the last step in the value stream is working software, you can use Kanban as a tool to make sure you do that.

Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

Kanban encourages customer collaboration through the prioritization of the backlog. Prioritization of the backlog is an ongoing process. Agile Kanban practitioners often use user stories or minimal marketable features (MMF). Use of either of these approaches supports customer collaboration in creating those items. The person who provides the detail on the stories or MMF is also available to the team to respond to questions.

As in Agile, daily standups are also present in Kanban. Unlike Agile, only people with issues speak in the daily standup. The standup meeting is an opportunity to speak up, whereas in Agile the traditional “three questions” are often present. This gives the team an opportunity to elevate issues to the Product Management representative’s attention, allowing them to be a partner in the process.

Silver Bullet Policy (see slide 20 for a brief overview) allows the customer to swap out an extremely high priority item for the current work in progress. There needs to be a swap so that WIP limits are not exceeded. Silver Bullet Policy may never be used, but can give the business the feeling that if there is an emergency, they can use this policy.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan

Agile teams often plan on a regular cadence. In Kanban, planning events can be triggered on an event. For example, your team may have a rule as follows: When the backlog backlog has dwindled to ten stories, a planning event will be held.

Unlike Scrum or XP, where the teams try to identify a piece of stability to work on for a period of time, Kanban allows the team to re-prioritize the backlog at any time and take something new off the backlog. This allows the team to respond to change sooner than if they were locked into a set sprint duration.


While Agile is primarily focused on software, Kanban is more focused on developing a lean organization . In fact, the business-oriented language that surrounds Kanban may make it an easier Agile model to embrace than Scrum.

While an organization or team can claim to be using Kanban and use it in non-agile ways, that will not be the case when done well. If the team and management use visualization, set WIP limits, and iterate on the value stream, Kanban is an excellent option for Agile teams.

Find More Information

There are lots of excellent resources on Kanban. My favorite reference is a book called Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. Thank you, Eric Landes, for loaning me your copy for a while. For further reading, check out the InfoQ version of the Kanban and Scrum Book.

A special thank you to Eric and Susan for co-authoring this blog.

Susan DiFabio, Agile Coach

Eric Landes, Agile Coach

Innovation Park at Notre Dame First Monday

Innovation Park at Notre Dame has announced a new First Monday event with the topic of “Social Media for Small and Medium Size Businesses.” Don Schindler will be presenting from 6:30 to 8:30 at this learning and networking event.

It is free and open to entrepreneurial folks who register. So, register for First Monday at Innovation Park. See you there.

Agile Community in Small Cities

I attended Agile Coach Camp United States (Twitter #ACCUS) this weekend. ACCUS is an open space, self organizing conference. I created a video to share the results of the open space topic I proposed, building Agile community in small cities:


Please feel free to comment on other ideas for building community, especially if you have tested those ideas and have learned from it.

There can be only one

Are you on a team where tasks seem to get started but not finished? Does the daily standup involve updates where individuals work on what seems like the same handful of tasks for multiple days?

Here’s a technique you can try for limiting work-in-progress. Instead of identifying task ownership whereby team members write their name on multiple task cards, ask each to use a single PostIt note with their name on it. Each person gets only one note with his or her name on it. Let’s face it, even if you have more than one task in the “In Progress” column, you can only work on one at a time. The sticky note is to be placed on the task that is being worked on at that moment. The note is moved throughout the day when changing tasks.

Here are some benefits of this approach:

Token to help address too much WIP

  1. Only one task can be claimed by any individual.
  2. The team now sees exactly who is doing what work at any moment.
  3. The team sees which tasks that are “In Progress” but not being worked on.
  4. Knowing what each person is working on makes it safer for team members to begin work on idle tasks.
  5. By no longer staking your claim to a whole set of tasks, you invite more collective ownership of completing the team’s work.

In addition to simply putting your name on a single sticky note, you could also capture data about context switching with this simple method. Write the date on your token. For that day, put a tally mark on the note each time the token moves from one task to another.

By using the date and tally marks on the card, you can get a sense for how much context switching is happening throughout the day. Perhaps thrashing is an impediment for your team. Of course, if you switch tasks six times and 5 tasks are completed, you probably don’t have a problem. If you switch six times and nothing gets to “Done,” there may be an impediment’s root cause to search for. Collect the notes throughout the iteration and look for trends in the data.

I hope you find this technique useful. Feel free to comment on the post.