Kanban and Lean - a challenging association

Posted on July 31, 2013 by David Anderson

There a few vocal detractors and those who resent the success of Kanban who have over the years accused me of many incredibly smart marketing moves. Apparently, I cleverly pursued a Blue Ocean Strategy to skillfully separate out Kanban from both Agile and Lean. I'd love to be that clever. I should make a fortune as a marketing genius and give up my current profession! ;-) Usually these accusations are couched in cynicism and laced with conspiracy theories. People are always trying to post-rationalize what is mostly just the emergent outcome of an evolutionary process in a complex marketplace. I rarely waste any energy responding to these accusations. However, most recently, I've been accused of trying to distance Kanban from Lean. This seems a strange accusation to make against the owner of the Lean Kanban Global Conference series and the Lean Kanban University certified training business. So it worth some explantion...

Where did the Kanban Method come from?

No one ever thought to give what we now call, The Kanban Method, a name. In 2008 there was some suggestion of Kanban System for Software Engineering (KSSE), or the "kissie" method as it would be pronounced. Needless to say it didn't catch on. I introduced the use of kanban systems as a point solution to a number of comonly recurring problems - overburdening of work, multi-tasking, committing too early, disruptive interruptions, hidden, non-explicit, often invisible classes of service for high priority but often not important work, and so forth. These point solutions were important as a step in my, at the time, incremental approach to change - identifying the number one problem, fixing it and promoting number two to the number one spot. Those familar with Jerry Weinberg's work will recognize the concept as familiar.

At the same time, I was looking to replicate the cultural and managerial approach used at Toyota and imbued in their kaizen concept - a workforce focus on continuous improvement and constantly challenging the status quo. Those familiar with this blog from 2005 & 2006 will recognize the theme. It wasn't until January 2007 that the use of kanban systems and the pursuit of a repeatable approach to kaizen came crashing together with the introduction of card walls to visualize the virtual kanban systems. This is fully explained in my recent book, Lessons in Agile Management.

Naming the Kanban Method

When it came time to write a book about Kanban and codify the method so that it could be taught and its adoption scaled around the world, it was necessary to name it. My early presentations simply talked about "virtual kanban systems for software engineering." This was too unwieldy and the community simply shortened it to "Kanban." But it had become more than just the use of virtual kanban systems. It was a codified, repeatable process for enabling an adaptive capability in organizations and catalyzing evolutionary change. It was a method for introduction a kaizen culture.

What I had achieved was to replicate and adapt the essence of the Toyota Way for knowledge work. However, it didn't make sense to call it, "The Toyota Way for Software Development" for two reasons. Firstly, Toyota didn't use this approach in their IT department, and secondly, it is now obvious that the approach is applicable for pretty much all creative, knowledge worker industries. We've seen effective, credible, institutionalized examples in law firms, in TV show production, in advertising agencies, in web services agencies, in HR departments and so on. So it was the Kanban Method. Perhaps it should have been "The Anderson Method" or "Evo?" - oh know, that name was taken already!

Why Lean Kanban?

The Lean Kanban brand came about from the desire to have a broader umbrella for our conferences. To encourage and embrace a wider set of ideas. However, Lean Kanban has evolved as a brand that stands for Lean (the Toyota Way) implemented through a focus on flow and adoption of a kaizen culture. There is a need for a brand and name for the method. The term Kanban isn't protectable on its own. Many people around the world, not just those at my own firm, work very hard to develop the intellectual property that represents the Kanban Method and to evangelize its adoption. There is a need to provide an umbrella to protect that investment for those seeking it to find it easily. So Lean Kanban and the Kanban Method are here to stay!

An uneasy relationship with Lean

I've come to refer to American Lean literature as "Boston Lean" to clearly differentiate it from Toyota materials generally translated from original Japanese. What makes me uneasy about Boston Lean is its focus on "the pursuit of perfection" through "waste elimination" where waste is "muda" (or non-value-adding activities). The typical Lean consulting firm, and again, I find myself mentioning, McKinsey, offer Lean through a defined approach that involves value stream mapping, identifying non-value-adding activities in the workflow, designing out those activities and then managing a change initiative to install the new, leaner process with the waste designed out. Like yesterday's post, my objection is to the process-engineering-centric approach and the notion that the process engineer knows best. This designed and managed change approach is truly the antithesis of of the Toyota kaizen approach where the workforce is empowered to make their own changes and processes evolve.

In addition, with knowledge work, many people playing roles find themselves performing necessary but non-value-adding tasks. Someone with the job title, Project Manager, spends 100% of their time on non-value-adding activities. Now, imagine that I'll be your Lean consultant and I come to design your value stream with the waste eliminated. How do you feel about me? Do you think, as a project manager, you might resist my advances? The Boston Lean consulting model is prone to failure in creative knowledge worker industries because it isn't humane. It isn't adapted to the human condition. It does not respect people and their emotional attachments to their work. Boston Lean works perfectly with silicon-based life forms!

We are finding that many firms have encountered the Boston style of Lean and often the experience has not been pleasant. As a result the Lean brand has baggage. While Lean has recognition in the market and feels familiar, there are also many people who are leary of it. They've had a bad exxperience with a top-down driven, designed and managed change initiative where the workforce were not consulted on the changes and were disenfranchized by the whole experience. There are many Lean consultants who have given it a bad name through this insensitive approach. I find it necessary to create some distance from Lean to clearly differentiate our approach with Kanban. The Lean Kanban brand provides just enough differentiation. The essence of Lean Kanban is delivering Toyota's workforce empowering kaizen culture to the creative knowledge workers of the 21st Century.

Embracing Lean Techniques, Ditching the Lean Consulting Business Model

To summarize the Lean Kanban position on Lean, many Lean techniques are actively taught as part of Kanban training and a whole chapter on using Lean models for identifying overheads on value-adding activities is included in my Kanban book. We also find that related approaches to evolutionary change such as A3 Thinking from the Toyota/Lean body of knowledge are synergistic and can be implemented alongside Kanban. Because we don't actively teach such methods doesn't mean we are against them. As I stated yesterday, Lean Kanban has a hedgehog concept - we are trying to do one thing really well. Where Lean Kanban is clearly differentiated from Boston Lean is in the consulting and delivery model. Kanban installs an adaptive, evolutionary capability and lets kaizen happen. Boston Lean is a design and managed change model. My objections to Boston Lean are the same as my objections to SAFe as I described yesterday.

Alternatives and Choice

Lean Kanban is offering an alternative, proven approach for 21st Century creative knowledge worker industries to go Lean. Choice in the marketplace is good. Accepting that the 20th Century managed change approach is challenged in complex environments is a step forward. Embracing this shows emotional maturity. We can show respect to the many good ideas in Lean and from Toyota while being pragmatic and embracing a management training and cultural approach to improvement that may be more likely to be effective than a process-centric, designed and managed change approach.