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Want to optimize delivery effectiveness with Kanban? Which of your teams should you start with?

This article is also featured on LinkedIn by Kyle Chandler

In my last article, I pointed out what Kanban is. I gave insight into the steps you can use to implement the management method. It left leaders asking, “Where should I implement Kanban?.” “Across all of my teams?.” “Within each team?” “Where will I get the most business benefit?” These are great questions that we’ll answer in this article. 

We’ll use Klaud Leopold’s Flight level analogy. Imagine that you are flying a helicopter over your organization. 

Flight Level 1: Operational Execution within Team

Flight level 1 is the lowest that you can fly. You would observe details of what’s below you and only over a short horizon. If you’re hovering over a city, you may only be able to see it’s borders.

In an organization, this is akin to hovering over a single team. You would only be able to see team boundaries, work coming in and work going out. You may observe within cross-functional teams made up of a combination of specialties, or functional ones made up of a single specialty. It depends on how your organization is currently structured.

Flight level 1 is focused solely on each of these teams’ internal workings, not on how teams interact. Implementing Kanban at this level means that each team may have its own Kanban board. The amount of concurrent work in progress starts to decrease as a result of visualizing and limiting work-in-progress. They stop starting so much work and start prioritizing getting work done. The realization of an imbalance within the team also begins to be noticed. Members within begin collaborating to improve their delivery effectiveness. 

It is typical for teams to experience relief from overburdening, improved focus, and better quality outcomes when implementing Kanban at this level. As they mature, they will also benefit from increased reliability, predictability, and speed. 

Beware of Local Optimization

Unfortunately, as a single team optimizes, it can cause complications for teams downstream. Let’s assume your team doubles their capability; a typical feat experienced Kanban teams achieve. They also double demand on teams downstream. 

The downstream team may refuse to start new work to prevent being overwhelmed, and to protect their ability to deliver what they have already started. The work they refuse sits in a queue, ageing. 

The downstream team will probably start too much work as work in an ageing queue gets escalated. Stress and overtime take hold. Work-in-progress and multi-tasking increases, and so do turn-around times. The quality of their work is likely to decrease. More defects are likely to emerge, further slowing down their ability to deliver. 

Either way, overall delivery timelines to the business’ customers become no faster than the slowest part of the system. It can even make the whole system slower.  Local optimization of a single team adversely affects a business’s overall ability to deliver value to customers.

Local optimization of a single team adversely affects a business’s overall ability to deliver value to customers.

Any extra capacity your team has might be better allocated to help the downstream team. This approach is more likely to optimize delivery for the business and its customers. It’s common for teams that use Kanban at this level to start realizing this and start asking if other teams can begin using Kanban. They begin to realize they need to understand the workload of downstream teams better. 

Flight Level 2: Coordination between teams

In flight level 2, you fly higher. You start to observe the content and limits of multiple cities, rather than the internal workings of a single city. 

In the organization, this is similar to observing multiple teams working together. You are able to see work queuing between teams and detect dependencies. You’re able to see members of teams helping other teams. You’re able to see how evenly teams are loaded. 

Flight level 2 is focused across teams from the first customer request to the time it is deployed. Implementing Kanban at this level means that there may be a single Kanban board across teams. As a result of visualizing and limiting work-in-progress, the concurrent amount of work decreases. Members prioritize getting work done, rather than started. 

Additional benefits that couldn’t be realized at flight level 1 start to emerge. An imbalance between teams becomes prominent very early. Teams start ensuring that they work no faster than downstream teams. Any unused capacity upstream can be redistributed downstream to speed up slower parts of the system. Now the focus becomes optimizing delivery effectiveness for the customer. 

Kanban at flight level 2, helps to coordinate work smoothly between teams and prevent the adverse effects of local optimization. It realizes significant business benefits that aren’t attainable when implemented within teams at flight level 1. 

The vast majority of Kanban implementations are exclusively within teams and not across teams, where significant business benefits are proven to emerge. 

The business and its customers will benefit from an increase in reliability, predictability, and speed with Kanban at this level. Of course, this tends to have a profound impact on customer satisfaction and revenue improvements.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Kanban implementations are exclusively within teams and not across teams, where significant business benefits are proven to emerge. 

In Summary

If you’re looking for business benefits, it’s best to implement Kanban at flight level 2. If you only have authority for one team, you can still achieve significant increases in sustainability and performance within your team. At flight level 1, it is a good testing ground to help get further buy-in from the rest of the organization and then more naturally evolve to using it across teams. It’s clear, however, if you have the opportunity to start implementing Kanban at flight level 2, you’ll have the most improvement leverage, and the most significant business outcomes. 

Want to learn more? Check our ultimate guide or read Essential Kanban Condensed by David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael.

Essential Kanban Condensed Book Cover

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