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Mistakes when implementing the Kanban method

Originally published by CIO magazine (German only)

Kanban is all about efficiency in IT. Learn about the most common pitfalls and how to get Kanban systems up and running faster.

Learning from mistakes drives teams forward.
Learning from mistakes drives teams forward.

Kanban - popular and proven. It is the best-known and most frequently used agile method, as confirmed by a study on agile working methods carried out by 10,000 specialists and managers of the management consultancy Kienbaum in cooperation with the job platform Stepstone. Kanban began to triumph in the 1940s as part of Toyota's lean production system. Today, it is hard to imagine the software industry without it. Kanban stands for efficient workflows, fast turnaround times and self-organised teams. However, there are many pitfalls on the way to an efficient Kanban system. These are explained in more detail below.

1. Meaningless metrics

Performance metrics enable evidence-based action. The most well-known metrics in Kanban are:

  • Lead time: The lead time measures how long a customer has to wait to get the new feature in their hands.

  • The cycle time: This is part of the delivery time and only starts when the team starts working on the task.

These metrics are usually judged on the basis of "the faster, the better". However, such an isolated view has little meaning. A shorter cycle time is not always a cause for celebration. Saving on coding quality has a similar effect. If delivery time increases, this is not necessarily a cause for concern. If customers frequently reprioritise or change their requirements, the same effect occurs. Efficient Kanban systems therefore need the right metrics in a meaningful metrics system.

2. The more the merrier

Kanban systems strive for efficiency. WIP (work in process) limits help with implementation by reducing the amount of work running in parallel. The fewer tasks you have on the table at the same time, the faster you can complete them. When a flood of tasks hits the team, some teams start to act intuitively, throwing WIP limits overboard and juggling more tasks. Multitasking usually feels more productive, but a hard look at the numbers shows the exact opposite.

Let's consider the following scenario: With a WIP limit of eight tasks and an average cycle time of two tasks per day, a customer receives a new feature in an average of four days (ø cycle time = 12/2). If the team increases the WIP limit to twelve, the customer will wait two days longer on average, six days instead of four (ø cycle time = 12/2).

So a lot doesn't always help a lot. Consistent implementation of WIP limits helps teams build an efficient system and tame the flood of work more quickly.

3. Tricky role conflicts

Kanban Master, Flow master or Service Delivery Manager - behind all these roles is the Servant Leader. He coaches the team in self-organisation, is a team developer, a facilitator, mediates in conflicts and helps the team to overcome stumbling blocks. It is not uncommon for a developer on the team to take on this role and get caught up in a deep role conflict. To put it bluntly, he is a service provider and a customer at the same time. He develops a team of which he is a part himself.

If he encounters challenges, so-called impediments, which he cannot solve himself, he can turn to the Kanban Master, - in other words, to himself. Clearly separating the roles is often difficult for the role owner, and often even harder for the team. What role is he representing when? Often, he is not as objective as he should be. This conflict gets teams into a lot of trouble. Merging roles is sometimes unavoidable. Keeping them as free of contradictions as possible should then be a top priority.

4. Kaizen equals retrospective

Kaizen is one of the key components of Kanban. It comes from the Japanese and means "change for the better". It became famous as the improvement philosophy of the car manufacturer Toyota. Kaizen challenges every team member to continually question and improve their own assumptions, working styles and processes.

When you look at Kanban teams, you often get the impression that improvements are limited to the retrospective, which is problematic because it does not always have the best reputation. It is often seen as an orchestrated waste of time, going round in circles with the same discussions, arriving at the same predetermined solutions, only to find that others are to blame. In this way the culture of improvement comes to a standstill and so does Kanban in the end. In efficient Kanban systems, on the other hand, Kaizen is lived. It guides the team's thinking and actions and can make even dusty retrospectives shine again.

5. Misconceptions about peer recruitment

More and more companies are putting recruitment into the hands of the team. After all, the team knows best what skills it needs, and a group makes better decisions than an individual. However, heuristics - the so-called rules of thumb - do not always add up to the right result. We like what we know, and we know ourselves best. It is therefore not surprising that people often rate candidates with similar characteristics better (similar-to-me effect). When you have an opinion, you look for information that confirms it (confirmation bias). Depending on how a question is asked, you can influence the candidate's response behaviour (interviewer bias) in a way that confirms your own opinion. Peer recruiting is therefore prone to error. With clear requirements and an awareness of the distorting effects of heuristics, teams can achieve higher quality and more successful recruitment.

6. Lack of buy-in

Many Kanban teams fail because of conviction. What is known in psychology as a self-fulfilling prophecy was summed up by Henry Ford: "Weather you think you can, or you think you can't. You're right." The self-fulfilling prophecy describes the phenomenon "that the probability of an event occurring is increased simply by the expectation of the event" (Dorsch encyclopedia of Psychology). This prophecy usually works against companies when introducing Kanban. This is often due to insufficient change management. The sales arguments for Kanban are often not very convincing. Some turn to Kanban because Scrum has failed. Others want to give the company an agile touch.

These arguments underline the need for change, but not automatically a change that includes Kanban. What is not convincing sows doubt, reinforces negative expectations and reduces the chances of success. However, companies can also turn the self-fulfilling prophecy in their favour by turning employees into customers. Convincing them to "buy in" increases the likelihood of success. A team that supports the Kanban solution will do whatever it takes to make the system work.

7. Empty words instead of values

Shared values help teams make decisions faster and collaborate more efficiently - if they come from the team. But when you look at team values, you sometimes suspect that they reflect what agile coaches like to hear. Values that can be interpreted in different ways turn out to be just as ineffective. Let's take the value "courage" as an example.

If you ask five different people what "courage" means to them, you will usually get five different answers. For one person, it might mean trying new ideas and taking risks; for another, it might mean being open about sensitive issues or criticism within the team. But only a shared understanding of values creates a common ground. Discussing values is necessary and often does more to bring teams together than the most adventurous team-building event.

8. Ignore conflicts

Whether simmering or explosive, any kind of conflict is dangerous for Kanban teams. Agile methods are based on trust, teamwork and communication. All of this is at stake in a conflict. When teams are more concerned about themselves than their customers, when trivial issues become heated debates, or when controversial discussions are avoided, it's time to pull the ripcord.

Mediation has been shown to be effective. Agile teams benefit most from a transformative and systemic approach to mediation. Both focus on empowerment, giving teams ownership and building a resilient foundation for further collaboration. But you don't have to wait for the situation to escalate. Mediative team development helps to prevent tensions. It promotes conflict resolution skills, strengthens the culture of trust and feedback, and builds team spirit.

9. Weakening high performance teams

"Go back to start ..., do not pass go ..., do not collect 4,000 DM". What is reminiscent of the frustrating event card in the game Monopoly is part of the everyday life of many Kanban teams. Teams go through a development process. According to the team development model of Bruce Tuckman, an American psychologist, a team goes through different phases until it reaches the fourth and most productive phase.

On the way to becoming a high performance team, some teams are repeatedly set back in terms of performance. This is usually due to changes in the team constellation. Many of these are avoidable and are driven by short-term optimisations, such as sharing resources with other teams when they are under-utilised. To build efficient Kanban systems, however, you need to look ahead. Tuckman recommends keeping teams as stable as possible. If this is not possible in the fast-moving project business, Mediative Team Development can help get teams back on track more quickly.

A closer look at the most common mistakes reveals: Kanban is teamwork. The stronger the team, the faster you get the system up and running.


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