Making Processes Policies Explicit
This fundamental principle of Kanban often engenders a mixed response in the hearts of team members, since most people simply have no idea what that means, and to many it sounds like a nanny type big brother state, wherein teams have no freedom whatsoever.
The purpose of explicit processes and policies, like all other Kanban principles, is to reduce waste, improve throughput and delight customers and team members alike. Lets first understand what making processes and policies explicit means, then we‘ll figure out why is it so important in Kanban, and how Kanban goes about fulfilling this principle.
What are processes and policies?
A process is a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes. Indeed, in your business, you have a set of consecutive steps, that carried out correctly produce a commodity, be that a piece of furniture, a digital presentation or a software package. That repetitive process and the quality of its execution is often what makes or breaks a company. But policies are the queen to the king of processes. If processes tell us what to do, then policies tell us how to do it.
The word policy is defined as management or procedure based primarily on material interest used to guide and determine present and future decisions. Hence, procedures and policies should be there to help you to advance the process the best you can. It’s not uncommon for teams to hit hard against policies and procedures, and when that happens, and policies don’t serve the team, then Kanban encourages them to be reviewed - to see if the policies perhaps need to be changed, rather than removed. Without making the policies and procedures explicit, there is going to be chaos, removing which Kanban is all about.
Have you ever walked onto a shop floor where it was evident that people have no idea what’s happening? This often occurs during industrial strikes, where whole teams get replaced by temporary workforce, and most of the time people are simply doing their own thing - there is just chaos. Now, compare that to watching a Formula 1 pit crew team, it is strikingly obvious they have a definite way of working, and everyone knows what is the most important thing to do, and does just that. It’s beautiful, efficient and effective.
There is a principle in architecture, stating that form follows function, attributed to Louis Sullivan. The reasoning behind it being that where function does not change form does not change. If you consider the power and speed of a great white shark vs the shape of its body, or take a look at the structure vs strength of the Golden Gate Bridge, the logic and efficiency of their shapes becomes very obvious. There should be a similar relation between a process and the policies guiding its execution, they are interconnected - and for a good reason.
What is the purpose?
The purpose of guiding processes with policies is to bring clarity and improve team productivity, their performance and effectiveness. Project managers are not interested in people being busy. They are not even interested in people being busy with the right activities. The goal and desire of any project manager is for the team to be busy with the right activities, performed in the correct way and at the right time to produce the required result. A Kanban board in itself makes processes and policies explicit. Just by viewing the board, the team is able to glean quite a lot about how the company works.
By looking at an example chair-making company’s Kanban board, we can tell that the process is: order backlog, chair design, assembly and finally chair painting.
We also see that the chair assembly department has a WIP limit, meaning they can’t be working or more than 4 chairs at a time, so as not to overburden the painting department. Next to each process stage (column) name, there is an “info” icon, giving the team clues as to how to approach work. For example, the Chair Painting policy is that once the Assembly team is done with their work, they are to join the painting team, and help inspect and paint chairs, thereby improving throughput.
This process is brilliant, and by building it into the board, it makes good governance and correct working policies second nature. You know the saying: practice makes perfect - but the problem is, that actually practice makes permanent. If a team is practicing a wrong way of working, then this will become ingrained into their ways. Making processes and policies explicit ensures that team members practice working well.
Reflecting what’s important
The policies need to reflect what is important to your company. In the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge both appears to be and is strong, your policies should outline - in an immediately noticeable way - what is important to the company. Team members should review their work daily, during the standup, to see where they are getting stuck, whether better ways of working should be introduced and how the board can be updated to reflect that? All these questions need to be stated, so that things become explicit. The policies and procedures should define which tasks the company is willing to ignore, for the benefit of focusing on key ones; what trade-offs in speed or quality the company is willing to accept, and in what circumstances.
Stating policies and procedures explicitly frees up the team’s mind space. In the article on Managing and Measuring Flow we showed how through getting into a state of flow, work becomes almost effortless. People who need to constantly remind themselves how to work, and have no easy way of accessing this information, will never get into a state of flow. Have you ever been told “We don’t work that way, how many times do I need to remind you!”? Well, if your superior had implemented explicit policies and procedures for the workflow, they would most likely not have had to ask that question. This fundamental principle has the potential to take away frustration and exhaustion from the entire team.
What needs to be made explicit?
Mike Tyson said Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!, meaning that when the going gets tough, when people hit a major crisis point, the best laid plans can be quickly forgotten. Making your process and policies explicit, such as limiting work in progress and building that into your board, may prevent the wheels coming off when things go wrong.
Here are some ideas for policies and procedures:
- Are your team members familiar with the flow of work, where an item starts and where it finishes?
- Does the team know what are the quality-check steps, and the Definition of Done (when an item will be considered to be complete)?
- Does the team know how to expedite an item that becomes urgent - and what does that mean for the team and for the process?
- How should team members handle defects found in the production process, do they stop want they are working on and fix the bug, or do they queue up the defective item at the beginning again… and so on. All this type of information - knowing how to proceed in common workflow scenarios - has to be clearly presented and accessible to the entire team.
Practice can make perfect!
Through accurate managing and measuring flow teams are provided with data that can be used to choose the best workflow policies and insight on how to update the process. The fundamental principle of making policies and processes explicit should be drawn from this analytical data, that makes evident all the root causes of any problems. Every time a feedback loop commences, the process is improved and that quickly generates improvements.
After a sustained period of time, the entire team becomes empowered by knowing what makes them successful and happy. They know what behaviour to focus on, and which habits need to stop, and in this continuous learning and improvement, the concept of Kaizen is being realized. As the great soccer player Pele put it: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, a love of what you are doing or learning to do”. Any process can be made more efficient, but we first need to know exactly what policies and behaviours drive it and work on them.