Kanban adoption drives agile businesses

Kirsten Doyle
By Kirsten Doyle, ITWeb contributor.
Johannesburg, 01 Nov 2017

As with most other countries, South African business are facing dynamic and competitive markets that are challenging the responsiveness and digitalisation of organisations.

Although an agile philosophy - a development method that is people-focused communications-oriented, flexible, fast, lean, iterative and responsible - is perfect to address these areas, South African organisations find it extremely difficult to fully transform to an agile way of working for many reasons, says Melani French, executive head: Business Enablement at DVT.

Introducing kanban

This is where kanban, an inventory-control system to control the supply chain, comes in. "Kanban is one of the most flexible agile frameworks that can help organisations start implementing the basics of agile without being constrained by some of the most complex issues as team restructuring, budget decentralisation, frequent software delivery cycles and suchlike," she explains.

French says in many organisations, kanban is used in mature high performing agile teams who are stretching the boundaries that a framework such as Scrum would typically prescribe. "I have seen kanban being used by new agile teams as well as mature agile teams. I have also seen kanban used in HR, recruitment, sales, dev teams, BA teams, Business, construction and more."

Karl Scotland, Lean Agile consultant at DVT, adds that kanban has its roots in lean manufacturing and the Toyota productions system, as a way of helping businesses respond to customer demand more quickly. "By limiting work in progress and improving the flow of work through the process, Toyota was able to reduce inventory and avoid the need to invest in a large amount of stock.

"There are many ways to design kanban systems. For example, I describe my style of designing kanban systems as kanban thinking. Whatever your choice, the essential elements of a kanban system are visualisation of the work, and limiting work in progress."

Compelling benefits

Speaking of the benefits of kanban, Scotland says perhaps the most compelling benefit of designing a kanban system is that it can be tailored to a specific context. "A kanban system is not a defined solution in and of itself but it is something you design to better understand your current situation by applying some simple heuristics to an existing process. By starting where you are now, instead of trying to implement a pre-defined future solution, it is possible evolve and improve a process to one which is better suited to the actual challenges being faced."

Moreover, he says by taking smaller steps, any resistance to change can be reduced. "The non-prescriptive style is more focused on learning what might work, and the experimental and data-driven style creates safety to try new ideas. This can lead to the growth of a learning culture, where change is seen as a continuous activity and not a one-off project."

In addition, using kanban within a current environment, and with existing processes, means businesses will start seeing the benefits of agile, including collaboration through working transparently and visually, cadence and sense of urgency created through standup ceremonies, and frequent delivery through team focus.

Getting more from scrum

He adds that kanban also enables businesses to get more from Scrum. "Scrum is an Agile framework which defines a set of specific meetings, roles and artefacts. Thus, it provides more detailed guidance on what changes to make in order to improve productivity, and can more easily bootstrap a transformation where it is an appropriate approach.

"Designing a kanban system is less prescriptive, and can apply in a wider set of circumstances. However, this can require more up-front effort in gaining agreement on what the design should be and how it should operate. Both approaches are complementary and can be used together.

"Where a business is already using Scrum, then Scrum becomes the starting context, and Scrum includes a mechanism to inspect and adapt through its Sprint Retrospective meeting. Kanban, therefore, can provide guidance on ways with which teams can inspect and adapt their Scrum process. Many common kanban design practices, such as demand analysis, visual boards, limiting WIP, metrics and forecasting, can all be used within the Scrum framework to enable teams to continuously improve."