The ULTIMATE Guide for Getting Started with Kanban

Everything You Need To Know Before You Start Visualizing Your Work

What is this guide about?

This guide will help you get a deeper understanding of what the Kanban Method is and what it can do for you. It will help you understand Kyle’s recommended approach for getting started. Many companies achieve BIG RESULTS using the Kanban Method, and in this guide, we’ll also share the results of those case studies. 

A nod to our influencers
Martin Aziz and Fernando Cuenca from SquirrelNorth have inspired large portions of this guide through their own blog posts and webinars. We’ll be sharing links throughout this guide to the content that has inspired us. Also, several images we created and used were inspired by images they use regularly.

Ready to get started? Scroll down!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kyle Chandler

Kanban Coach / Agile Coach / Management Consultant

I specialize in helping organizations boost their ability to deliver reliably to customers using the Kanban Method. I am passionate about helping you achieve positive business outcomes.

I am a certified Kanban Coaching Professional, Kanban Management Professional and Certified Scrum Master. 

Kanban Coaching Professional
Kanban Management Professional

Table of Contents

WHY USE KANBAN?

When organizations start using Kanban, there is usually an excellent reason for it. They’ve been having difficulties delivering value effectively, and need a solution. So, what kind of problems are organizations trying to solve when they start using Kaban? One or more of these:

  • Stress related to delivery times or quality
  • Fear when making commitments to clients or customers
  • Lots of time spent analyzing estimates and timelines for accuracy
  • Sleepless nights related to worries about your reputation or abilities to deliver as promised
  • A high-stress environment with high levels of overtime
  • Disengaged, frustrated employees and high turnover affecting your ability to deliver
  • Difficulty innovating or focusing on work that you know will make it easier to deliver in the future
  • Unrealistic expectations combined with unplanned ‘surprise’ demand that you cannot say no to
  • Commitments being made before you even know about the work, yet still having to deliver
  • Increasing complaints about quality issues and defects, broken implementations, and fires that you’re always putting out
  • Losing sales to competition that is providing a better product or beating you to market with new ideas or features

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a leader trying to solve these problems, how many times have you resorted to hiring more people? Setting more aggressive goals? Working overtime or ensuring that everybody is 100% utilized? These popular strategies only make these problems even worse.

What is the right job for Kanban?

A hammer, screw and a screwdriver

Have you ever tried repairing something at home? If you use the wrong tool for the job, it’s frustrating and provides a lower quality experience. Have you ever tried using a hammer to install a screw? It doesn’t end well. It’s essential to use the Kanban Method to tackle problems it’s designed to relieve. Otherwise, you’ll become frustrated and will get lacklustre results. 

The Kanban Method solves the preceding problems and

  • Provides relief from overburdening and produces better quality work
  • Systematically increases delivery performance and reliability
  • Positions your business to respond to changing customer preferences and competition more effectively (business agility)

It does this all without adding people or increasing pressure on your employees. If solving these problems and getting these results are what you’re looking for, then the Kanban Method is the power drill to your screw. But, is this particular tool worth your investment?

What business results should you expect?

At the end of the day, if you’re going to invest time and money in the Kanban Method, you need to be sure there will be a return on your investment. So what return is typical from the Kanban Method?

Typical results from 3 to 6 months

  • Reduced overburdening of employees within teams using the Kanban Method
  • 5% to 10% decrease in operational costs

from 7 to 12 months

  • Even more reduced overburdening across teams
  • 100% increase in throughput (e.g. features per month for a software development team)
  • 10% to 50% decrease in time-to-market (e.g. how long features take to deliver to customers)
  • Increase customer satisfaction

from 13 to 24 months

  • 150% increase in throughput
  • An even higher increase in customer satisfaction

What’s it worth?

For an organization with 20 million in annual operating costs and 22 million in annual revenue, we can roughly calculate the financial impact of the typical results we mentioned above. 

With the most modest of estimates (e.g. 10% not 50%) used in our calculation, you could see a $250,000 return on your investment in 6 months. In 12 months a $12,850,000 return, and in 24 months a whopping $57,850,000 return! 

This model assumes that you have enough customer demand to take advantage of your enhanced capability. Your context and situation may be different than what is typically observed and so your results may vary. You can download our free Kanban ROI Calculator to calculate what you can typically expect if you get similar results.

Martin’s blog post series ‘The ROI of KANBAN‘ inspired this section of our ultimate guide. The math we used was a little different from Martin’s. We calculate that when time-to-market (or throughput) doubles revenue doubles. In Martin’s calculation, when time-to-market doubles profit doubles.  

We have proof

Don’t believe me? There are lots of case studies that prove that this is possible. We’re warning you now that these can be heavy for readers who are not familiar with all of the terminology used. That’s why we’ve extracted the key points from our featured case study for you.

Featured case study: Vanguard

  • An investment management company
  • Was struggling to get the performance they desired using scrum
  • Started to implement the Kanban Method
  • Team P’s delivery time improved by 78% in 90 days
  • Team Q’s delivery time improved by 77% in 90 days

In figure 1 below, the blue line is team P’s progress reducing delivery time once they implemented Kanban.

Control Chart before kanban after kanban
Figure 1: Team P's control chart at Vanguard before and after implementing the Kanban Method

There are almost a dozen case studies documented by Kanban University, and I encourage you to check them out for yourself and verify our claims.  

Who uses the Kanban Method?

The Kanban Method is in use across many different industries with excellent results. There are many misconceptions about the Kanban Method and where it is effective. There is evidence that it is effective almost anywhere. SquirrelNorth has a comprehensive list of industries and companies that are using Kanban effectively. It includes government and private sector companies in banking & financial services, retail, food services, travel, social networking, health care, and more. 

Up next

Continue reading this guide to learn the steps you can take to ensure that you are increasing your chances of getting BIG RESULTS by getting started properly.

DON'T BE FOOLED: KNOW YOUR KANBAN BASICS

Did you read step 1? Then you should already have a crystal clear understanding of the benefits you can expect from the Kanban Method. You now understand what problems to tackle with it.  

In this step, we’ll focus on why it’s critical to get a deeper education by giving you a fundamental overview of what the Kanban Method is and isn’t. You’ll learn that there is much more to the Kanban Method than organizations usually understand. By the end of this step, you’ll have the knowledge you need to plan a highly effective Kanban implementation.

Be aware of myths and misconceptions

Many false beliefs prevent organizations from investing in the Kanban Method and from getting exceptional results. If you are skeptical of the Kanban Method, it might be because of these top myths:

MYTH#1: You have to choose between Kanban and some other methodology or framework (e.g. scrum).
Kanban works well in combination with Waterfall, Scrum, XP, or any other framework or methodology of your choice. 

MYTH#2: Kanban is only great for operations (not development).
There are many case studies of Kanban in use with development teams. We even featured one of those below. All of our clients are developing software. 

MYTH#3: Kanban is just a workflow visualization board where you track the status of work and limit work in progress.
If you intend to improve your service delivery and it is changing the behaviour of your organization, managers, and customers, then you might quite well be using Kanban. If you’re just using it to track work, then that’s not the Kanban Method. Kanban includes practices to catalyze improvement, ensure that improvements are effective, and provides change management principles and approaches. 

There are many more myths, so we encourage you to check out our myth-busting list (coming soon) of common Kanban myths and misconceptions. Now that you have busted myths and misconceptions holding your organization back, it’s time to understand the full scope of the Kanban Method.

What is the Kanban Method?

 When your customer vocalizes a need, the organization starts a series of actions meant to fulfill that need. 

Kanban service visual

Kanban classifies this series of actions as a service and provides tools to optimize it.  

Kanban Balances Demand and Capability

In service, a mismatch between demand and capability creates undesirable outcomes for customers and the delivery team. For example, when there is more demand than capability, customers and important stakeholders can become frustrated with aspects of delivery (e.g. reliability, speed, and quality). The Kanban Method aims to restore balance so that frustrations with service delivery are relieved. 

Demand vs Capability on a balance scale
Symptoms from umbalanced demand and capability

Organizations usually think they only have a few options that help them deal with these symptoms. They’ll refuse work requests, hire more people, maximize utilization or provide better training for staff. Unfortunately, some of these only make matters worse. What other options can you think of that resolve unreliable delivery?

Balance Scale Demand vs Capability with top solutions
Strategies most organizations use to balance demand with capability

Kanban introduces over 150+ tools and strategies to shape demand and improve capability. These eliminate sources of dissatisfaction and get BIG business results. 

Shape Demand

Improve Capability

Kanban Practices Catalyze Improvement

What good are tools to help balance demand and capability and to enhance your service delivery if there isn’t a way to identify the best improvement opportunities and catalyze improvement? That’s exactly what the six Kanban practices below do. 

  • Visualize 
  • Limit work in progress
  • Manage Flow
  • Make Policies Explicit
  • Establish Feedback Loops
  • Improve Collaboratively, evolve experimentally

In combination these practices help you to create a visual model of the activities between “I need” and “I got it”. They make usually undetectable problems that cause delays detectable and ensure there is discipline and focus around resolving them. 

Visualizing workflow using a Kanban board is often the only practice inexperienced organizations implement. Unfortunately, they don’t get the big results that are possible.  

Kanban’s Service Delivery Principles Focus Organizations on Value

How can organizations make sure that each problem that surfaces using Kanban practices has the best solution? Kanban’s service delivery principles help ensure that selected solutions are the most impactful ones for customers.

  • Understand and focus on your customers’ needs and expectations
  • Manage the work; let the people self-organize around it 
  • Evolve policies to improve customer and business outcome 

They purposefully take our focus away from the worker, and shift the focus toward evolving the system. This shift in focus has proven to be more effective. 

Kanban’s Change Management Approach Wins Buy-In

Over 70% of change programs fail. The Kanban Method includes change management principles and practices that are better suited for knowledge work that is now more common to see in the 21st century. Traditional change management from the 20th century tends to replace what you’re doing with a prescribed catalogue. 21st-century businesses need a 21st-century model for change management. 

Kanban Change Management Principles

Organizations of human beings naturally resist change, and Kanban manages and acknowledges this with three change principles.

  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change
  • Encourage acts of leadership at every level

These change principles welcome incremental evolution that human beings can stomach and support. Kanban acknowledges that the way people are currently working has taken time and effort to evolve, and it works for them. It is important to respect how they currently operate. Helping them evolve from where they are now is more human and more effective. 

Kanban Change Management Practices

With these principles in mind, experienced Kanban coaches apply a sequence of steps to implement Kanban successfully.  While we call them practices as we think it helps with understanding, you should note that officially the Kanban Method does not call them practices. The Kanban Method refers to these “practices” as The Systems Thinking Approach to Implementing Kanban, or STATIK for short. STATIK includes these steps:  

STATIK Cycle

These steps tend to repeat in cycles to ensure the organization takes on only as much evolutionary change as they can handle. Once comfortable enough with the last change, organizations start over from step 2. They do so in pursuit of additional service delivery enhancements for customers. Depending on the organization, each cycle can take a couple of days to a couple of weeks. 

Each one of these steps includes a workshop or two, some homework for participants, and specific outcomes. It helps participants understand and learn about their service delivery just enough to design the next evolution of their Kanban system. By the end of these steps, your organization would have

  • Understood the service delivery pain points to target resolving
  • Understood demand and capability characteristics of the service
  • Understood workflow of service requests
  • Designed the kanban board columns, policies, and wip limits
  • Designed feedback loops (meetings) that will ensure evolutionary improvement happens
  • Achieved buy-in, and started the change

STATIK workshops typically include a small cross-functional group. It involves customers, other external stakeholders (influencers, decision-makers and governance authorities), as well as team members from delivery functions. The goal is to have enough representation from both internal and external people involved in the design. This approach helps get it right and also helps with buy-in. 

What does this all mean?

The Kanban Method is much more than a board with work in progress limits. There is massive depth and breadth to the Kanban Method. 

  • It includes 150+ tools to help you shape demand and improve the capability of service delivery
  • It includes practices that help organizations identify new opportunities and catalyze improvement. 
  • It includes service delivery principles to help organizations focus on more effective solutions for customers. 
  • It includes change management principles and practices to ensure that implementation is successful and organizations get return on their investment

Organizations that do not understand the full scope of Kanban are unlikely to get the full range of benefits. You, however, should now be equipped with the understanding you’ll need to start effectively. 

Up Next

Steps 1 and 2, gave you enough knowledge to build your starter plan. You know the most common myths and misconceptions. You get what Kanban is at a very high level. You understand the benefits you can expect. In the next step, you’ll start building your starter plan. 

CREATE A PLAN

Are you ready? Roll your sleeves up, because now it’s your turn. Of course, we will guide you, but this is your plan, not ours. In this step, we’ll make sure that you include the necessary pieces in your plan to get you started and avoid the top reasons Kanban implementations fail (article coming soon). 

In the early stages, it’s essential to identify and target gaps in knowledge, practical experience, and organizational buy-in. To do that, it’s a good idea to understand the scope of your implementation and maybe even get started on your own before you fully commit. Clarifying how much of the organization you intend to transform will help you determine who you should influence and educate. 

Identify the Service to Be Optimized

In step 1, you learned that Kanban optimizes services. Each service starts once a customer makes a request (“I need this”) to the time the request is delivered (“I got it!”). It’s normal to observe a makeup of interconnected services that work together to deliver the full service to the customer. 

Interconnect services visual

If you are an executive, you’ll be able to implement the Kanban Method across all of these interconnected services and get the biggest results. This is often referred to as flight level 2. If you are a manager your focus will be on your service for which you have authority. There will be requests coming from upstream services which are representatives of your customer, and you’ll be handing work off to a downstream service to carry it the rest of the way until it gets into the customers’ hands. This is often referred to as flight level 1

Answer these three questions to identify your service
  • What people or groups do your requests come from?
  • What types of work do they request?
  • What people or groups do your requests go to when your team’s work is complete?

Take a moment and use this template to answer these questions and identify your service. On completion, you’ll have a crystal clear picture of the service you can optimize with the Kanban Method. 

Now is an excellent time to assess if the revenue and operating cost figures you used in Step 1‘s Kanban ROI Calculator match the service you’re looking to improve with Kanban. Do the revenue and operating cost figures you used match your service’s footprint?

Getting Started on Your Own

Now you know the service you want to optimize. The following sections of this guide are designed to help you get started with support from professionals and get the formal training you need to get the biggest results. This sub-section “getting started on your own”, however, will focus on giving self-starters enough to get started properly, on their own. 

  1. Create your first Kanban Board and determine if your team is productive
  2. 8 pragmatic steps to increase team productivity using Kanban
  3. 5 steps to limit work-in-progress and accelerate delivery
  4. How to start integrating feedback loops to reinforce continuous improvement (coming soon)
We plan to continue adding to this section so you can get practical and impactful advice even if you aren’t ready to get external help. 

Budget for Training

With a clear service in mind, you are now able to identify the people who can make (or break) the success of your Kanban implementation. To increase your odds of success, it’s best if they believe whole-heartedly in the benefits of the Kanban Method. 

Sponsors

Who are they?

Change Leaders

Who are they? Is this you?

Champions

 Who are they?

 There are two types of support, financial and hands-on. Hands-on support means to contribute to the outcomes actively. Being hands-on means that they may have to take the reigns, and at other times participate. Either way, being hands-on means being present. People who provide financial support may be hands-off and only provide the financial means to achieve the desired result, or they may also be hands-on. 

Take a moment to identify and note down who these people are using this templateRecord each person’s level of Kanban education/experience, any formal education they have, the type of support needed from them, and the amount of support you think they’ll provide.

For Kanban Management Professional training we highly recommend SquirrelNorth. We don’t get any referral income. We just think they have high quality offerings and expertise. 

Budget for External Support

To get bigger results it’s best to include the expert guidance that comes from a Kanban Coaching Professional (KCP) or Accredited Kanban Consultant (AKC). Without this combination of education and support, organizations are unlikely to get big results. 

The larger your service, or more aggressive your goals, the more external support you’ll need. A good ballpark estimate is anywhere from between $5,500 to $16,000 CDN a month and for 6 months to a year. If you read Step 1 in this guide, you know the business results far outweigh this cost.

If you’re struggling to deliver on time and frustration is growing you probably don’t have time to build the expertise that comes with a KCP or AKC. 

Get Sponsorship and Start Executing

Now is a great time to revisit your Kanban ROI Calculator that you used in Step 1. In it, enter your estimated costs for training and consulting. Share Step 1 and 2 of this guide with your sponsor and discuss the return on investment you’ve calculated. That should be enough to get them to buy-in, and you’re off to the races.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *