Adopting Kanban: The Beginning

This is the story of the first 4 days of an ongoing 6 months Kanban adoption that we started with a small company from Cluj-Napoca. The company develops its own web-based product with a good commercial success.

It started with the founder and General Manager of the company contacting us for a discussion about their problems. We’ve seen this story before: a person has an idea, convinces 2-3 people to work with him, they create a great product and the team grows. At some point the company becomes chaotic because a development process that works for a start-up doesn’t work for a 15-20 people company. The first employees and the founder have to work nights, days and week-ends to keep everyone busy and to keep the money coming. At some point they realize the effort can’t be sustained without changing the way of work.

The leadership team had to make a decision and choose between Scrum and Kanban. We presented both frameworks and they decided to choose Kanban because Scrum was too intrusive for their environment. We settled for a 6 months assignment, starting with a training and initial adoption phase and continuing with a few days a month to sustain the adoption. Flavius and I started to customize the materials for this assignment, as we often do for in-house assignments.


Kanban is probably the simplest process in terms of starting with it; it’s a whole different story to build the discipline to stick to it for a long period of time

Fast forward to January 2013. We have learned during our work with companies and teams that each such assignment has three phases that are equally important:

  • Assess: How is the team currently organized? What are their habits? What are the objectives of the change? How will they react to the change?
  • Learn: Teach them the theory behind what they want to adopt, be it Scrum, Kanban, unit testing, TDD etc., using a lot of practical, hands-on exercises.
  • Adopt: Help them start by working together to setup the basic infrastructure. In the case of Kanban, the board, the WIP limits, the explicit policies, train a facilitator etc. Then stick with them and help them keep the process, because they will go back to the old ways from time to time.

The assessment was already done during the first meetings. So we started a mix of learning and adoption, of theory and games with application on their real project. Here’s a rough structure of the 4 days:

Day 1:

  • Introduction to Kanban: what it is, why we use it
  • Transmit and clarify the objectives of the assignment
  • Experience Kanban through a game
  • Analyze your current process using Value Stream Mapping

Day 2:

  • Visual Management: how to view your work, why it’s useful, how do visual boards look like
  • Identify your board columns starting from the Value Stream Map
  • Build your board
  • Add current work on the board
  • Introduce the Daily Standup; facilitate the first Daily Standup

Day 3:

  • Discuss WIP Limits and Explicit Policies; add them on board
  • Second iteration on adding work on board
  • Discuss value demand and failure demand, code quality

Day 4:

  • Continuous improvement, Theory of Constraints and retrospectives
  • Manage requirements using user stories

A few key things happened during the assignment:

  • “Invisible” work came to light. It often happens in a chaotic organization that features start and then people forget about them.
  • There was a lot of work in progress, and not enough work analyzed for the future. In other words, we found a bottleneck in the system.
  • The improvement ideas were selected based on intuition and not connected with the business objectives. Making the objectives visible will help focus the team on the valuable work.
  • The whole team understood the value of limiting work, stop starting and start finishing, reducing the batch size and dealing with bottlenecks.

All in all, it was a success. We know however that this is only the beginning. The next 21 days are very important for the adoption of the basic process. We keep in close contact with the team and we’re ready to help them as quickly as possible if they find they’re going back to the old ways. Kanban is probably the simplest process in terms of starting with it; it’s a whole different story to build the discipline to stick to it for a long period of time. And we’re already planning to go back there for a few days in February, to facilitate a retrospective and discuss all the issues and questions that will appear.

Comments? Questions? Would you benefit from such a change? Please add your comments below or contact us.

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