Kanban is (just) a model

In the past weeks, my last active Kanban event way back in the past, I had some unfortunate discussions about Kanban.

The conversations that went bad, have all been trigged by others, not really doing Kanban asking me question on my experiences w/ Kanban and how I am (or was) doing or seeing things. I simply answered. My conversation partners in at least two cases left the conversation annoyed. I wondered what happened.

What I think what happened is that I was so sure and certain about my statements that this was indeed really annoying. What helped me in many cases and conversations, turned against me in the newer cases. The level of certainty I expressed in the conversations was disturbing, although honest and true, being based on empirical analysis of what I have been doing in the last years and several environments. Empirical analysis being a core part of Kanban.

What changed was, that in the past I was mainly questioned by colleagues who saw the effect of my work and who where happy of me sharing the knowledge. In the newer cases I was asked by people who didn't observe the effects of my work. To them my certainty must have come across as that of an ignorant super jerk. In fact one guy said I wouldn't know his organization and thus I would be coming with ready made recipes. I know the danger - but in fact I thought he asked me what I do and so I answered. I didn't even consider his environment - that would've been the next discussion. Again, I simply answered his questions on how I was doing things. Anyways - this is not about communication. During thinking about this disturbing effect I came to the following conclusion.

Whatever Kanban may be: a method, a tool, a process, a process to improve processes … whatever. To me it mainly is THE model to describe Product Development in an intuitive way. Whatever I am doing I somehow describe it in the language of Kanban. And until now it never failed to me to describe and explain effects I have observed. This really helps me to have a good model in my head to discuss and think over all the options that I have.

The model has about a million layers, starting with the visualization, the WiP limits, the core practices, the principles, the values, the culture, the queue model built in, flow ... Millions. All of them together have a certain effect and none of the effects can be reduced or deduced to a single measure we took at work. This also explains why the whole thing is so fragile ... As lean (and agile?) in general are.

So Kanban is a whole set of layers working together. As a conscious or unconscious effort (deep vs. shallow) doesn't matter that too much to me. Lots of the work being done by most of us currently is digging deeper into this model, deepening and trying to detangle it at the same time. Let's keep on.

THE model also now explains to me why my discussions ended in a bad way (besides me possibly being a jerk). Without explaining to the outsider or the uninitiated that we are always talking about the interplay of a multitude of layers, people must think we talk about a mere, lame white wall with stickies and numbers, which couldn't have those effects. And they couldn't. WE'd indeed be jerks if we claimed THAT. But we aren't - just the white wall with stickies and some stupid numbers is not what we are talking about. Since years. But it doesn't seem to get across easily.

But it also something we need to remember: We are not talking about Kanban. Even not capital K Kanban. We talk about all the positive effects we achieve and map these to Kanban. This can be or at least sound annoying. The name may be a problem - it suggests that we talk about the whiteboard with the ... But we don't. And we know, we take it for granted. But they don't know. And we have to explain. (If they don't get mad too soon ;)

In the end, Kanban - yes - is just a model. Possibly the best we currently have and it is still evolving pretty fast. Once it stops evolving it will be done and dead and ripe for replacement for the next great thing. But I don't see that coming soon. Too much is still happening, too much still needs to be explained, too many discussion to be held - possibly me being a jerk ;)

To end, after writing this, it occurred to me that I am saying similar things as David in his last blog entry on Tolerance - 'Are we doing Kanban or not?'. Just from quite different a vanishing point. Read it, it explains a lot.