Perhaps one of the more popular topics in Agile development today is scaling. Scaling means to widen the use of Agile practices across multiple teams. After seeing results from Agile implementations at the team-level, companies tread the obvious path of making the whole organization Agile.
What started as a pilot team acting as guinea pigs and seeing success, leaders then say “what’s next?” They then begin introducing Agile to other teams and departments. This endeavor is often met with tension and struggle as it requires a different approach – one in which scaling can be achieved. While Agile methodologies work well in terms of team delivery optimization, we needed a way to approach Agile at the enterprise-level.
The Agile community responded to the call and now we see frameworks such as SAFe and LeSS which guide teams on how to scale Agile throughout the enterprise. We often see Scrum being used at the team-level for these implementations.
So for those using Kanban, a common question pops-up: Is scaling Kanban possible? How does one scale Kanban?
Large Scale Kanban
When Klaus Leopold, renowned Kanban pioneer, was asked about scaling Kanban he explained the inherent nature of “scale” in it. He said, “Scalability is an inherent part of Kanban and therefore one cannot scale Kanban. Scaling in a Kanban context means: Doing more Kanban.”
When we think about the principles and practices of Kanban, it’s centered around continuous, evolutionary improvement. So scaling Kanban, technically means to do more Kanban. But how do we do more Kanban? Klaus suggests scaling Kanban in-depth and in breadth.
Depth scaling in terms of Kanban means doing what you currently do more intensely. Taking your current Kanban system and looking at ways to improve it is what depth scaling is about. You can look into analyzing performance data and metrics to see how your system can be improved. Process optimization is also an example of depth scaling. As you uncover better ways to perform work, you deepen your Kanban practice.
Breadth scaling, on the other hand, pertains to integrating upstream or downstream processes to your system. This is perhaps the more common type of scaling in Kanban and one that’s easier to visualize. For example, an upstream process in software development would be Requirements Analysis.
As a team, you can examine the process and see how it can seamlessly integrate into your Develop and Test process. We often see these two processes being done by different groups. Scaling Kanban in breadth for this scenario requires both teams to work together. How that process looks like and is implemented will depend on what both teams agree on. There can be policies in place for the implementation.
Breadth scaling can also work with multiple teams. If you have more than one team working on a product, having all those systems working together is considered breadth scaling.
When you deepen your Kanban practice and integrate the processes of your teams, you are in effect scaling Kanban.
Tips on Managing Large Scale Projects with Kanban
Visualize Your Value Stream
When scaling Kanban, you must have a good grasp of how you’re creating value for your customers. To know how to scale, you need to know what you’re scaling. To map out your process, especially when working with multiple teams, enlist delegates from each of the functional groups to have a concrete picture of what’s happening in reality. The more accurate your visualization is the better. Remember to focus on how each step in your process is creating value. This will be your starting point as you endeavor to improve and scale your Kanban practice.
Assign Roles & Responsibilities
Now that you know the process you’re operating in, it’s time to determine who your actors are. The key here is not to fit the people into the process. Value-creation should still be the guide when identifying who will do what. A common problem when organizations go into scaling Kanban or any Agile framework is that they start with assigning people with roles or thinking how a role will fit into the implementation. But this approach often results in a dysfunctional implementation, with people doing unnecessary work or value-creation being missed out.
Set Policies to Establish Common Ground
Scaling Kanban is no exception to policies. As with any Kanban implementation, policies need to be explicitly made known and adhered to by all teams. Performing Kanban at scale requires a lot of coordination between teams. It’s all the more important that everyone knows what to expect from each other and how work will flow seamlessly throughout all the value-streams. This reduces confusion and creates a more conducive work environment where issues can be resolved much more easily. Expect that your policies will change and evolve especially when merging services or aggregating systems. Review your policies regularly and ensure they reflect on how your team can best achieve your goals.
Coordinate at All Levels
It’s important to have discussions that tackle all levels of the implementation. We normally see team stand-ups being done at the micro-level but it’s also important to set aside time to discuss how work is flowing across teams involved in the project, program, or even portfolio level. It’s not necessary to have everyone in the room but having representatives from all teams and functions is recommended.
With everything working like clockwork, leaders must endeavor to take a step back and look at the big picture and assess if goals are being met. Maintaining traceability on what happens on the team-level and how all those rolls back up to your project, program, or portfolio goals are important. It can be challenging to keep track of things but with the help of a reliable Kanban solution that has board and card linking capabilities, you can have a better way of managing work across different project boards.
We have some examples of portfolio Kanban boards done through Kanban Zone to help managers and teams visualize how this can help when scaling Kanban.
Kanban at Scale
Scaling Kanban is achieved through continuous improvement. By regularly evaluating your existing workflow, you can spot inefficiencies or better ways of working. You can spot opportunities to connect existing services or integrate systems. To do this, you can set up a regular time to discuss pain points and improvement areas at all levels of the program implementation. Work on an improvement plan and monitor how each of your action items is being achieved.
Remember that your goal isn’t to make one massive process and overwhelm everyone with the complexity that comes with it. When scaling Kanban, anchor your changes and actions to producing better value from the customer’s perspective. When you do this, you’re scaling Kanban effectively.