Building a new tool was never our goal because who needs another tool? The problem was simple, our clients needed a simple tool that could infuse all the benefits of Kanban. To our surprise, the solution was not obvious because a Kanban tool is much more than a visual task board. The journey to create Kanban Zone started in the early days of Agile and the focus has always remained around human collaboration and continuous improvement…
Becoming Agile coaches…
Kristen and I met in 2006 during a large Agile transformation of 30 teams, where we had the chance to collaborate with Mike Cohn and Pete Behrens. Following this great experience, we both continued to help organizations mostly do Scrum, and over the course of multiple Agile engagements became full-time Agile coaches.
Our 1st Kanban board was for a Data Warehouse team…
The first time we proposed Kanban as an Agile approach to a client was in 2008. This government agency was so pleased with the improvements seen on the software delivery side using Scrum, that they increased our scope to also handle their data warehouse.
This is when we realized that Scrum and eXtreme Programming were great iterative methodologies for complex work in short cycles. That was not the case for a data warehouse team. Here is why:
- We did attempt to break the work into smaller chunks to fit into smaller iterations. However, these small increments were not valuable on their own, increased dependencies, and caused testing to be inefficient.
- The work was mostly repetitive in nature (complicated, not complex), which did not warrant the same highly creative collaboration to solve new problems, which is where Scrum shines.
- Lastly, the team was composed of only experts at understanding and managing data, as opposed to a cross-functional Scrum team with multiple roles. We did play the role of Scrum Master at first to help the team, but that role quickly became unnecessary.
We created a Kanban board, visualized their backlog on this board and started flowing cards smoothly to completion. Because the team was made of more seasoned programmers and experts, they required very little supervision and they naturally embraced the spirit of continuous improvement (Kaizen). Daily stand-ups and monthly retrospectives were continued, but the concept of iterations was there only to communicate what cards were completed within a certain time frame (Throughput).
Our 2nd Kanban board was for a Finance team that would not take “No” for an answer…
The agency was very pleased with seeing the IT side now more efficient and no longer the main reason of blame for everything that went wrong. This created an interesting dynamic, the Finance department, the heart of this agency, posting and awarding grants, now wanted the same benefits as the IT department. They wanted to be Agile too!
This was the first time that we would apply Agile to a non-software team. We quickly saw the same patterns as the data warehouse team… Grants could not be broken down into smaller chunks, the lifecycle to complete the grant process was longer than a few weeks, and the team makeup was only experts at one thing (managing grants). There was also no role like a Product Owner or a ScrumMaster. There were a director and a couple of managers, but we put them all to work on the same Kanban board.
It became obvious that any well-defined process could easily be visualized on a Kanban board. It would create a simple way to flow work items as cards on that board. In fact, the first cards were actually real grant applications that needed heavy duty pins to hold them on the wall.
Again this team quickly followed the typical team-building stages of forming, storming and norming on their way to performing. They quickly and easily got to norming due to their current well-defined processes. The team eventually became fanatical about finding every possible way to keep streamlining their work and squeezing out more efficiencies. Not because their “boss” asked for it, but because it felt right.
Fast forward to scaling many more large Agile organizations…
1. Complex Boards – What the team needs to be productive!
Over the years we continued to provide Agile coaching and training services using physical Kanban boards. This was great until we needed to scale and integrate varied work streams across the organization. Don’t get me wrong we still love using a physical board. They are especially helpful at first when coaching a team and working out the initial kinks on the board. There are two main factors that can push teams into using an electronic tool: distributed workers and enterprise reporting.
Most of our customers were using two types of tools:
- Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) tools created for Agile like VersionOne and Rally, as well as tools that incorporated Agile templates like Jira and TFS.
- Tools that could offer an online board like Trello, but were not actual Kanban tools. Many of the tools had Kanban in their product name but could only create simple grid-like boards.
What we discovered is that a great Kanban board must be designed by the team and continuously improved. Often these boards were not just a few columns in a perfect grid. In fact, many teams found it helpful to leverage rows, create different tracks and sometimes visualize multiple small boards into one. We looked at online kanban tools and still, today are unable to find any that are not laid out as a grid.
The #1 reason for building Kanban Zone was to solve this problem! Why should teams modify their working physical board when moving to an electronic version? Why lose the board that truly worked for them?
We created a different kind of online tool to visualize any Kanban board you can imagine. Our vertical and horizontal containers can hold other containers (columns) of cards. This approach provides complete flexibility and even better ways to visualize and roll up data to increase productivity.
Learn more and watch a video about building complex boards in Kanban Zone.
2. Portfolio Kanban – The secret to scaling Agile!
Agile is easy to implement for one team, but when multiple teams are needed across multiple products or segments of an organization, then you need a way to connect and track everything. Simply looking at the evolution of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) from V1 to V4, it’s easy to see the shift to Lean and Kanban. It started showing up in Kanban at the team level and then all levels of the organization, especially at the top with a Portfolio Kanban, Lean Budgets and Value Streams.
Although we like the big picture provided by SAFe, it’s full implementation still feels heavy, not customer focus and ultimately more complicated than it needs to be, especially as a Lean solution. What’s important to note in SAFe is the extreme reliance on connected Kanban boards.
When we approached Portfolio Kanban, we focused not only on the process but also the way people behave and collaborate with each other. We created an online solution that permits any board to be connected to any other board through the simple act of linking cards. Team members can easily signal that a card (work item) is related to another by using a four-way link (parent/child and predecessor/successor). By linking a card, the progress between these cards is represented on both sides to keep everyone informed and to most efficiently resolve critical dependencies.
Typically organizations will define their ideal flow. The most common one we use is:
- Strategy – Kanban board visualizing the flow of initiative at the highest level for executives.
- Discovery – Kanban boards for each area to flow projects (or features) associated with initiatives.
- Teams – Kanban boards for each team representing their specific process to flow the deliverables linked to projects (or user stories linked to features).
Learn more about Portfolio Kanban and multiple ways to design your ideal flow with real-life examples and board templates that you can set up with easy in Kanban Zone.
3. Business Agility – Agile not only for software!
The history of Agile has gone through a few phases that organizations also experience when embarking on their Agile journey. It typically starts with one or two teams on the software side embracing the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. As more teams see the benefits of Agile, thanks to initial pilot teams and the transparency of their results (good & bad), the scaling begins to create more Agile teams. The last cycle that we are now seeing more of in large organizations is embracing business agility, which means visualizing the flow on Kanban boards for key processes or teams on the business side.
We have transformed every area of organizations, including but not limited to: operations, finance, human resources, customer support, etc…The beauty of doing business agility is that the entire organization can effectively communicate using Kanban cards and connect them as necessary. Often an initiative is not only about software, but there are also many other tracks to consider like training, communication, marketing, legal, etc…By having a common way to visualize work and collaborate through cards, organizations quickly become more effective by eliminating wasteful activities and simplifying end to end processes.
So, why did two Agile coaches build another Kanban tool?
Below are the 3 main reasons:
- Complex boards – to recreate online any board you can imagine, instead of only grids
- Portfolio Kanban – to link cards, connect boards and provide full traceability across the organization
- Not only for software – yes software is a huge part of most organizations, but other areas also need to be more agile and effective
As we continue to apply Kanban to new and exciting areas, we continue to stay true to our core principles for the ideal Kanban tool… Simple, Lean and Agile. We obviously designed and developed Kanban Zone to be the best Kanban tool, but don’t just take our word, try it for yourself with our free version.
Are you ready for increased focus, efficiency, and happiness? It’s easy, get into the Kanban Zone.