Kanban's Galapagos Island

Posted on August 20, 2012 by admin

Isolating Kanban

It occurred to me while reading Adapt that a number of somewhat accidental choices and decisions had served to isolate Kanban and its community and in effect create a Galapagos island where the meme could thrive and evolve. The first of these events was to create the Kanbandev Yahoo! group and to encourage a community of enthusiasts. This provided an online meeting place for the affinity group, or tribe, to develop its ideas. In 2008, it was suggested we get together face-to-face and the Lean & Kanban 2009 conference in Miami was conceived. For the first time, the emerging Kanban tribe came together to share its experiences and develop a narrative. Out of that meeting came the idea to form the Limited WIP Society as an online place to share experiences and to find like-minded people. That in turn spawned local groups meeting in cities such as London, Stockholm and Hamburg. There are now around 30 of these groups all over the world. The largest are in Australia - Sydney and Melbourne. Remarkable given that there has never been a Lean Kanban conference in Australasia and I've only taught a single class - the advanced 3-day masterclass - in the region.

These community meeting places both virtual and physical, both local, regional and global, have served to create a bubble inside which the Kanban meme can thrive and evolve separate from any undue influence from the Agile (or other) communities. As Harford might suggest to us, had Kanban simply been served as a track or theme within Agile community events, it is likely that cross-breeding with Agile methods would have watered it down and stunted its growth.

Kanban without Isolation

Without protection, from the Agile community. within its own Galapagos island, Kanban would have come under stronger attack. It wouldn't have been allowed to emerge as it truly is - an approach to change, an evolutionary approach designed to work upon existing processes and morph them into something fitter for their environment and entirely tailored to suit the specific situation. Instead, Kanban would have become yet another Agile method - one with deferred commitment, de-coupled cadences, no iterations, no planning, no estimating - essentially a new approach to project management.

What would have happened next is that the tribal immune system would have set to work on it. Attacking the novelty and the practices that were not considered to be Agile. The fitness criteria for the survival of Kanban within the Agile community would have created a filter that discouraged and eliminated practices that were not considered part of the tribal rituals and accepted behavioral practices. The de-coupled cadences would have disappeared in favor of iterations. The deferred commitment concept that discourages planning and estimation would have gone too. Operations reviews would be gone. Retrospectives at a team level on the same cadence as the deliveries would replace it but the inter-workflow benefit of an ops review would be lost. The kaizen events that happen after a daily standup meeting would probably be lost too - because the Agile norm is conformance to a defined process, and to reflect on performance only at scheduled retrospectives. Further, some sections of the community reinforce conformance to the defined process via a tribal need to label those who don't conform fully as either less worthy or completely untouchable. If you want social status you must conform to the way everyone else is doing it.

So what would we be left with had we not accidentally isolated Kanban? It seems the use of card walls was already an accepted Agile practice in 2007. Kanban gave this practice greater depth and it gave it a catchy name. Kanban made the use of card walls "sticky" (as Chip and Dan Heath might suggest in Made to Stick). So perhaps it is not a surprise that as far as the Agile Alliance is concerned, Kanban Board is an Agile practice. Within the Agile community Kanban gets reduced to a visualization technique.

Benefits of Isolation

Through the happy coincidence of isolating Kanban from existing software development industry communities, we were able to develop our own. As anyone who has attended the series of conferences we've run over the past 3 years can attest, this community is diverse, open-minded, experimental, and is constantly looking to synthesize ideas from outside. Dissenters are actively encouraged. We've had John Seddon tell us "Lean drives me potty" and Benjamin Mitchell suggest Kanban might be a fad and to actively criticize the ability of Kanban to work as it is advertized as a mechanism to catalyze evolutionary change. We've had Hakan Forss challenge some of the core ideas in depth of implementation. Dissent has helped us to evolve and dissenters have, in some cases, been rewarded with greater profile in the community, and prominent influence, such as chairing a track, or speaking opportunities at conferences.

My personal experience from other communities has been that ideas that challenge the established tribal norms and dissenting opinions are shunned and unwelcome. If you want a speaking spot at the event you'd better be telling people what they want to hear!


Social isolation is a way to encourage a meme to thrive and evolve. You can create social isolation by encouraging the development of a community - an affinity group, or tribe - that shares an enthusiasm for the idea. The community must have meeting places both virtual and physical. When the community meets it must be able to share its stories in a safe environment. The leaders of the community must encourage and nurture diversity, dissent, and allow variants and mutations to emerge. In doing so, the idea will become stronger. It will evolve and thrive.

By doing all these things with Kanban, we've created a worldwide movement that is providing real benefits to people, teams, organizations and large-scale businesses. Had we not done so, even though it was accidental, it is likely Kanban would be a mere footnote in the legacy of the Agile community - a visualization technique for Agile methods. So many possibilities would have been missed and so much value left unrealized.