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When Kanban Fails

by Pawel Brodzinski

If you're one of the true believers in Kanban and its success rates, here is a piece of news to you - there are times when it will not work. Thinking it is an answer to all problems and a recipe for success in all cases is a nice idea, but quite an unrealistic one.

When Kanban Fails

On number of occasions Pawel Brodzinski saw this very thing happen. The conclusion that he drew from discussing the issue with his fellow Kanban specialists at Lean Kanban Central Europe 2011 conference was, that the basic common theme in these failures are people and their behavior. But since no-one is going to replace an entire team just to match them to the designed system, an obvious conclusion is to alter the system. He claims there is a way, using which the new system will influence the way the people work.

The only way to make changes starts with identifying the problems. So, what are the symptoms of a failing Kanban implementation? The first thing you look at is - no surprise here - the Kanban board.

1. Board updates

For as long as the board is not kept up to date, anything that you do, and is based on the board information will be based on untrue information.

2. Imagined processes

Also, a common issue is making the board look like the process that the team wants to have, rather than the one that they have. This adds to the non-factual board information, a way of making the team not just base their actions on lies, but also dig through a net of non-existent process steps and procedures. At this point, you should be ready to admit it would make more sense to not have a board at all..

3. Suspiciously complex boards

Another typical problem is over-complicating the boards. Why make something basic complex? The idea of a Kanban board is to make work easier, there is no need to apply every trick in the book just to make it seem more complex - no-one needs this.

4. Overlooked WIP limits

A standard issue for failing Kanban is not taking WIP limits seriously. If you're not going to take them into account and respect, you might as well stop using words like Kanban, improvement and better workflow altogether, because you're not going to be doing any of those.

5. The role that Kanban plays

As the last of Kanban failure causes, Pawel mentions the very core of what Kanban is and is not. According to him, Kanban is a great change management method, a way of implementing a new system - a process driving tool, but not a full-blown process with rules and regulations on how to make your process work and work well. So, what he recommends is having a set of underlying rules, or even another management method below Kanban. The underlying method shall be setting the tone and detailed shape for the work you do.

With keeping these symptoms in check and staying serious about making your process strong, true and a little fuller than just built on Kanban's change management approach, chances are this will work out. So, if you're still wondering about the one way to make Kanban work, it is keeping the board updated and in line with the real process.

Read our article on more Kanban problems »
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