Lean : Kanban Trumps the Bad and the Ugly

Lean : Kanban Trumps the Bad and the Ugly

A long while ago, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) pushed its limited and ill informed conception of Lean by focussing on waste elimination. It defined what most of us believe Lean to be to this day.


Six Sigma, with relatively good mathematical science – but not perfect according to Donald Wheeler – jumped on the bandwagon of certifications with its famous – and no less dogmatic & command and control – belt structure. Although Six Sigma always quotes chapters and verses from the statistical work of the likes of Donald Wheeler, we never heard the likes of Wheeler endorse ‘Sick Stigma’ (a term borrowed from Dave Snowden) ! (Having read all of Wheeler books, I never saw a reference to Six Sigma anywhere)

A recent study from QualPro, a consulting firm that advocates an alternative quality process, points out that 53 of 58 large companies that use Six Sigma have trailed the S&P 500 ever since they implemented it. As if on cue, once-mighty proponents of the program have begun to scale back their involvement, if not abandon it outright. Two of the most recent dropouts: 3M and Home Depot. In fact, Robert Nardelli, the former CEO of Home Depot, was forced out in part because his Six Sigma program was blamed for plummeting customer satisfaction and employee morale. At 3M, management is rolling back many Six Sigma initiatives: The program, it decided, was not compatible with the spirit of innovation that had once made 3M great. Invention is an inherently risky, wasteful and chaotic process—exactly the sort of stuff Six Sigma seeks to eliminate

Coming back to software development, those 7 wastes were the focus of the earlier book by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, where both merely transposed the 7 wastes as it were to software development. Later books proved to be better aligned with the essence of value creation, which is the foundation of Lean.

The essence of Lean, as depicted by David Anderson’s lean decision filter, is where we should stand : a) Value trumps flow, b) Flow trumps waste elimination, c) Waste elimination trumps economies of scale.

Waste elimination is a distant third focus. But neither BCG nor Six Sigma truly understood the spirit of Lean.

Lean Kanban University’s teachings focus on Value first where the flow of work is visually illustrated with the dominant knowledge activities driving product development. Waste is of course addressed in a system’s thinking approach inspired from the scientific work of Goldratt and Demings.

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Daniel Doiron is an Accredited Kanban Trainer (AKT) who works closely with CC Pace to deliver Kanban training and coaching to our clients. 



“Once I started looking around behind the port frames, I figured I could just….”

And so began a summer of endless sailboat projects and no sailing.  One project lead to the start of another without resolving the first.  What does this possibly have to do with software development and Agile techniques?

My old man and I own and are restoring an older sailboat.  He is also in the IT profession, and is steeped in classic waterfall development methodology.  After another frustrating day of talking past each other, he asked how I felt things could be handled differently in our boat projects.

“Stop starting and start finishing!”

It is the key mindset for Agile.  Take a small task that provides value, focus on it, and get it done.  It eliminates distraction and gives the user something usable quickly.

Applying this mindset outside of software may not be intuitive, but can pay dividends quickly.  On the boat, we cleared space on the bulkhead, grabbed a stack of post-its and planned through the next project, rewiring the boat.  The discussion started with the goal of the project.  “We’re just to tear everything out and rewire everything.” Talk about ignoring non-breaking changes!  I suggested that we focus on always having a working product – a sail-able boat – and break the project into smaller tasks that can be worked from start to finish in short, manageable pieces of time.

Approaching the project from that angle, we quickly developed a list of sub tasks, prioritized them, and put them up on our make-shift Kanban board.  This was planning was so intuitive and rewarding on its own that we did the same for other projects we want to tackle before April.

So stop starting, start finishing, and start providing value quicker for your stakeholders.

Many times I have seen newly formed or new to Agile teams and organizations moving from Scrum and/or Kanban to eventually settling for Scrumban as they mature. As I reflect on these teams that I have worked with, I feel that their ultimate form of Scrumban is probably their own kind of Shu-Ha-Ri progression.

Shu Ha Ri is a Japanese martial art concept, and describes the stages of learning to mastery.

imageShu – the student copies the teacher’s moves as perfectly as possible. The teacher corrects the student if the movement is imperfect, inefficient, or ineffectively performed.

Ha – In this stage, the student understands the principles well enough to depart from rigid practices. The student experiments and makes observations of the new techniques. The newly emerged techniques become his own.

Ri – stage, the student has reached a point of mastery and is able to teach and to adapt to new situations easily.

Shu – the journey begins
Teams and organizations new to Agile and in infant stages of Agile transformation start off as being Scrum .They start following all the Scrum practices, conforming to the roles of the Scrum and they kind of follow the prescriptive form of Agile, or Scrum which makes sense. Installing a basic set of proven Agile practices by force can start yielding quick benefits for the organizations, letting them see how the new methodology leads to working faster and delivering the value out to the customer quicker. It kind of builds confidence at the team level too. The teams and the organization are both at the Shu level.

The team keeps having the daily scrums, planning sessions, locking the sprint, reviews and retrospectives in a prescribed manner till it becomes muscle memory.

When a team produces consistent results using rigid methods, they have completed their Shu stage.

As an Organization, these successful practices are also replicated to other areas to see the benefits in the other parts of organization.

Ha – adjusting the sails
With each retrospective and in the spirit of constant improvement, they change the practices to what make sense for their own unique solution. Teams start to feel maybe Scrum isn’t the right way for what they are doing.

Some teams don’t want to be restricted by the lock down of sprint commitment and want to be able to pull their work. Some of the teams want to move away from the planning session or role demarcation but still like the way certain things worked in Scrum and start to work on what is the “Ha’ phase. In the Ha stage, teams often will start to innovate their processes and the way they design their software. They may adopt new methods and tools in dealing with each other. Retrospectives are the key in the Ha stage to gauge the effect of the newly formed processes: are they helping the team or taking them back into the post Scrum era.

The Ha stage will include some successes and some failures, but it will be a learning experiment and the team will be wiser and mature with each of these experiments.

As an Organization starts doing Scrum in various teams and divisions, it becomes clear that one size doesn’t work for all aspects of the software development, and some prescriptive processes which work for majority of teams clearly need more refinement or customization to work for the other teams. This is the organization getting into the ‘HA’ phase. This can be extremely useful for existing Scrum teams looking to improve their scale or capability.

What the discovery leads to is Scrumban, an Agile management methodology that is hybrid of Scrum and Kanban and was originally designed as a way to transition from Scrum to Kanban.

Scrumban is a pull-based system, where the team no longer plans out the work that is committed to during the planning, instead continuously grooming the backlog. The same Scrum meetings (planning, review, and retrospective) can still take place, but the cadence of them can be more context-driven. The main emphasis is on limiting the work in progress (WIP).

With Scrumban, a team benefits from the prescriptive nature of Scrum while the process improvement of Kanban allows their process capability to continuously improve (kaizen) , reducing the waste and simplifying the way they work. In all of this they develop something new and unique to the team and hence get to the “Ri’ stage.

Ri – losing sight of the shore
At the Ri stage of an Agile transition, the team becomes capable of abandoning rules and strict forms while increasing the productivity and customer experience. They can produce quality work, with the rule or methodology of their own.

As an Organization, it might be a new flavor of Methodology which works best for the company itself.

In a previous blog I shared how unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt our thoughts, create anxiety and affect our productivity. Research has proven that in human endeavors, once expectations have been set, our brains seek a conclusion. If that conclusion is not forthcoming, the brain “stays open” to receive it. Zeigarnik effects result from our mind’s tendency to seek conclusion: when leaving tasks unfinished to focus on something else, we experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts about the uncompleted tasks. Since multi-tasking is simply diverting our attention from one task to another (basically making the new task an interruption), our brain won’t allow us to fully focus on the new task because we have left the previous one uncompleted.

Kanban core practices not only help alleviate these effects, they can spin the Zeigarnik effect on its head and use it to our advantage. Here are several ways how this works:

  • One of the Kanban practices is to “Limit Work In Progress (WIP)” based on available capacity to complete the work. This practice supports our brain’s natural inclination to seek closure by finishing what we started.
  • Another core practice is to “Manage Flow”, meaning that we want to reach the optimum cycle times possible for everything we do. Besides a definition of “Done” teams define a definition of “Ready” that helps prevent starting on work they could not complete due to missing information or unavailability of subject matter experts (SMEs) along a value stream.
  • In the event that information or people are not available, the affected work item is blocked visually indicating that work cannot continue until the blocker is removed. The physical act of blocking a work item cancels Zeigarnik effect by providing the closure our brains seek.
  • Author and psychologist Perry W Buffington described the Zeigarnik effect by stating that people tend to remember negative experiences and feelings longer than positive ones. In our world this means that we hear more often from our stakeholders about what we haven’t done for them and less about what we delivered. Drawing upon this phenomenon, in our Kanban consulting practice we coach delivery teams how to consistently review with customers how delivered work is always completed at the expense of other work not being done. This leads to better prioritization, less escalations and minimizes interruptions.  This approach is part of two other Kanban practices: “Develop Feedback Loops” and “Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally”.

Do you have a lot of unfinished business like a multitude of projects, tasks, and priorities that constantly change, requiring you to stop working on something and start working on something new or on something that was already on hold? Is the unfinished business (The Zeigarnik Effect) hunting you? Do you know how to forecast the capacity you or your team has and how to improve it?

High performance or high productivity require staying focused and avoiding multi-tasking or disruptions. Kanban practices can help you and they are easy to adopt alongside any other processes you already have in place. Our Certified Kanban Foundations Course will help you get started. Let us know what questions you have.



Zeigarnik, B.V. (1927). Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Activities), Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85

Perry W. Buffington, Cheap Psychological Tricks (Atlanta, Georgia: Peachtree Publishers Ltd., 1996), pages 93-95.

Do you often feel tensed thinking of tasks started and not completed?  Do you find interruptions frustrating and wish they go away so you can complete tasks started a while back?

If you do, you are not alone and you are likely to experience the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnick, a Lithuanian-born psychologist. In the late 20s, she noticed that waiters seemed to remember complex orders in progress, but forgot all about them when completed. She conducted further studies in which people were required to complete puzzles while being randomly interrupted. It turns out study subjects remembered the interrupted tasks 90% better than the completed tasks and associated interruptions with feelings of frustration. And during the last 80 years, it has repeatedly been demonstrated that people experience unpleasant thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pg. 122).

Whether it’s something we want to finish or not, it’s our mind’s sometimes incomprehensible but overwhelming desire to finish what we’ve started. Our memory signals the conscious mind, which may be focused on new goals, that a previous activity was left incomplete. It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience a state of tension which manifests itself in improved memory for the uncompleted task. As uncompleted tasks accumulate, our level of anxiety will increase and it becomes difficult to pursue any single objective with uninterrupted concentration.

Unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt our thoughts, a sort of auto-pilot system reminding us of what needs to be completed. The cognitive effort that comes with these intrusive thoughts of the unfinished task is terminated only once the person returns to complete the task.

Interrupting our efforts to finish a task before it’s complete also seems to interfere with our ability to accurately estimate our productivity, lengthening our estimate of how much time we’ve spent and how much longer it will take us to finish, according to a 1992 study by Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman.

This automatic system that signals our conscious mind that we have unfinished business, provides evidence of a neurological basis for the teachings of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Stephen Covey,  and others on the crucial importance of choosing what not to do. Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of using resources on the 10% of things that make 90% of the difference. He described leadership as doing the right things — versus management, doing things right. Likewise Jim Collins describes his “Stop Doing List” as the cornerstone of how he allocates his most valuable resource: time. Stephen Covey espoused effectiveness more than efficiency; getting the right things done at the expense of getting lots of things done.

Our capacity for work and our capacity for attention are limited and are governed by physical laws. Kanban Systems leverage the Zeigarnik effect and help individuals and organizations stay focused on what is important, reduce stress, and improve predictability, morale and productivity. I will show you how in my next blog.

Are you noticing the Zeigarnick effect around you? Please leave a comment below.



Zeigarnik, B.V. (1927). Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Activities), Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85

Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J., (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. United States: Thompson Wadsworth.

Greist-Bousquet, S., Schiffman, N. (1992). The effect of Task interruption and closure on perceived duration. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1), 9-11

I get this question a lot. And I ask back “What business problems are you trying to solve?” Each method has great potential when applied within the right context. If you are already using one of them, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use practices from the other. You should adopt any practice that enhances your current toolset for solving business challenges.

Here is a good article that takes a pragmatic approach on how each one of the methods can be used based on what is best for your customers: What is Best, Scrum or Kanban? – http://www.agileconnection.com/article/what-best-scrum-or-kanban

CC Pace provides a variety of Agile services, and we can help you build your toolset as your business needs change. This blog site is a great forum to ask methodology related questions. What do you want to learn more about?

When our yacht club saw membership dropping and was looking for a change, I called our Chairmen of the Board and suggested… a Kanban board.

Lucky for me, our Chairmen works in software for a well know online travel site. He knew just what I was talking about. After a short discussion, we decided to introduce the ideas of Scrum to the board. At our next Board of Directors (BoD) meeting I turned up, white board and 3 x 5 cards in hand.

Together we introduced the BoD to the idea of using a Scrum board to track our work. We started by brainstorming ideas in two key categories supporting the club’s 2015 goal of Membership retention and growth. Our two categories are membership activities and building improvements. After creating quite a backlog for the club, we discussed priority, and arrived at a commitment to working on a subset of the backlog for the upcoming sprint. Our sprint cycle was easy to determine as there are two meetings a month at the club, providing approximately 2 weeks in between each meeting. Board members signed up for stories listed in the backlog to get us off and running. At our general membership meeting, the visual board with our sprint and “product” backlog were introduced to the club.

Being “Agile” is a way of thinking. Core ideas like transparency, prioritizing, and collaboration can be incorporated into our everyday lives. I often suggest using a visual board for household chores when I’m doing training. No more nagging your partner, or kids. Just keep a board with 3×5 cards or post-its to identify upcoming work. Identify priority, acceptance criteria, and limit your work in progress by identifying a sprint length (one – two weeks work well). This helps to keep from feeling overwhelmed. Everyone is happier knowing what is expected. I’ve tried this at home with good success which is what led me to suggesting this for our club.

In taking these same principles and applying them to our club, we’re able to benefit from being Agile. The club members are our customers. They get visibility and input into the work being done. Members can make suggestions for new work, and volunteer to help. The club’s budget helps identify what can be afforded, and expected ROI helps us prioritize. Our initial work is underway, and I look forward to seeing our long-term projects lead us to sustaining and even growing our membership.

About a year ago, I co-authored with Bruce Yang a whitepaper entitled “Agile in the Federal Government – Moving Beyond Scrum.”  In that whitepaper, we predicted that the government would follow the lead of the private sector to adopt Agile solutions beyond Scrum to gain broader benefits.  Specifically, the private sector had learned that Scrum by itself would not effectively support scalability to replicate the success of one project across the entire organizational structure and adopted scaling frameworks such SAFe.  Similarly, it realized that the Scrum methodology was not necessarily appropriate for all types of work and looked for alternatives, most notably Kanban.

I am happy to report that the federal sector has in fact followed this anticipated pattern.  Some examples:

We’re trying to compile a more comprehensive list of agencies that have adopted Agile techniques beyond Scrum and how well they have been working.   Would you mind sharing any non-confidential examples that you might be aware of?