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3 years of Kanban at Sandvik IT: The Story of an Improvement Journey

by Christophe Achouiantz

This fascinating story describes how implementing Kanban in a 3-people support system has resulted in bringing about a change to an entire enterprise (60 teams across 3 years). Furthermore, it shows the right way to modify the entire culture associated with the way a company works.

The situation

The company in question is Sandvik AB, a Swedish supplier of mining and construction machinery. Their System Development Office is a part of this set-up, and aims at providing the best methods and tools for the IT deliveries. The SDO's assignment in 2009 was to streamline Sandvik's delivery capability by unification of the process, test automation and - in result - highlighting the improvement possibilities.

The initial data and problems

No standard solutions will do - since each team's work differs from the other's. The goals and ways of reaching them were too different. No centralized solution could be sustainable. It couldn't demand any extra effort from the teams, that were going to use it. The most common difficulties that the teams had reported were distraction and low productivity caused by multi-tasking, technical debt and unmet deadlines. As these issues are deeply interconnected, it's no wonder that letting things go in one respect, creates even more delay with the rest of problem areas.

A possible solution

The SDO team had realized, that the problems described above are common to all teams, regardless of what they do. They had also found, that the one solution to make all these issues go away would be some kind of a workflow control. Focusing on this, instead of a unified process, was probably the key to success here. After this realization, the obvious choice was Kanban. Facilitating workflow control, allowing great customization and therefore suitable for all of the teams.

Introduction of Kanban

Even though the SDO had the solution now, all the overworked teams still didn't have the time to sit and listen to them. They have come with a great way of making the team managers themselves want this solution for their teams. They simply created an awareness, by showing round an info-graphic of the vicious circle running round the technical debt - low quality - multi-tasking - expedited work - delays. The managers appreciated this and began to simply want the change.

Kanban Kick-Starts and Boosts

Seeing that they were dealing with overworked teams already, the aim for the introduction to Kanban was its compactness. It just needed to be short. The SDO team had decided on making introductory workshops, which would only take a day. This was enough to let the team know what and how they are meant to be doing, but wasn't quite enough to allow for continuous improvement to be developed. So, they offered 2-hour "boost" sessions, which - in the log run - facilitated Kanban's persistence within the team, and did promote self-generated improvement.

During these workshops the teams were being thought to define their team's goal, create their policies (decide on types of work, process stages and visualization methods) and finally, they were advised on making explicit team policies.

The implementation

Since 2010, the SDO team has kick-started over 60 of Sandvik's teams, by doing workshops and follow-ups (boosts) with 2 or 3 coaches at a time. On top of this, they had introduced a helping hand of a Flow Manager, a role not typically associated with Kanban. The purpose of doing this was to appoint someone, who will take charge of the implementation and ensure that it follows through. He was also meant to be the one to turn to in case of any questions or doubts about Kanban from the team.

Kanban assessments

To ensure that the teams actually did do Kanban, the SDO team had come up with an assessment tool to measure Kanban maturity within a team.
Using this tool provides solutions to following problems:

  • How deep into the implementation a team has gone
  • What is the next change that a team should make in order to keep improving their process
  • How to inspire a team, which growth has been stopped
  • Which teams need to be awarded for their achievements, in order to make Kanban's presence persistent within the company

If there is one thing, that this assessment method doesn't allow is comparing teams between themselves. Not in this scenario, anyway - Kanban is perfectly scalable, and the fact it can be utilized by many different teams doesn't mean that these teams are suddenly comparable to each other. They still perform different work and have completely unique processes.

Kanban results

Apart form much appreciated transparency, the main "solid" results of implementing Kanban were:

  • Stronger team spirit
  • Better team focus and prioritization
  • No over-stretching of the team's capacity
  • Better understanding of the process
  • A standardized way of working - no need to ponder the best way to approach a repeated problem
  • Measurable and transparent workflow

So far, having introduced Kanban to more than 60 teams, what has been achieved is the perfect environment for growing continuous improvement. They have not yet decided that the work is done, the SDO is constantly working on creating more and better ways of achieving the desired goal - a perfect, self-improving, scalable system.

Sandvik's advice

If you want to have a go to, Sandvik SDO team advises you to know what it is that you're trying to achieve, then present it to the team in a clear and understandable way and last, but not least - come up with ways of following up on the team's progress. Good luck!


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