Kanban and the Greck Mithology

(In my way to Holidays) – During a long flight, I read about Greek mythology and I found it interesting and funny because I realized how Hercules, the Greek hero was already aware of the Kanban secrets 🙂 to achieve his challenges. Let’s speak about Kanban!

The Delphi Oracle promised to Hercules immortality and the restoration of his honor, destroyed by a tragedy of his past. For that the condition requested was: Hercules was obliged to execute twelve difficult tasks and serving, his enemy, Eristeu for twelve years.

It was a really hard mission, the work involved superhuman tasks: to kill the Hydra of the nine heads, to capture the Cretan Bull, to take hold of the Hipólita’s belt, queen of the Amazons and bring it to Cerbero, the dog of the three heads that keeps the kingdom of the dead, separated from our world. Impossible, we would be tempted to conclude.

Pitia, the Oracle’s priestess, was also certain that the hero would fail his mission, but Hercules was sure that he would carry it until the end, not because he was the smartest or the strongest but because he had a plan: each task at a time!

So I would say, Hercules acted based on Kanban principles:

  • Hercules got a backlog with 12 tasks;
  • He ordered the tasks, visualizing what he committed to deliver: seeing all the items in their context, had a priority and an order.
  • Executed one by one, limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP), to don’t start and commit to too much work at once;
  • Enhance flow: when finished one task in progress, the next task with highest priority in the backlog is pulled into progress.

As Hercules was a single individual the following team behavior following Kanban methods are not observed. But if we were in front of an Agile team, performing accordingly with Kanban methods, we could expect the following collective behavior:

The team is collaborative and active, using all capacity, ongoing is learning and improving by defining the best possible team workflow.

The Kanban Method allows organizations to start with their existing workflow and drive evolutionary change. The Kanban Method was originally introduced in a production line from Toyota, some years ago in Japan, and is based on visual signaling mechanisms to control work in progress for intangible work products.

Kanban Service Delivery Principles

Organizations are a collection of interdependent services, and we should  place the focus on the work, not on the people doing the work.

  • Understand and focus on your customers’ needs and expectations. Hercules customer was Delphi Oracle.
  • Self-organized team. Hercules was pretty well organizing his task list
  • Evolve policies to improve customer and business outcomes.

Kanban Practices

Visualize the amount of work (stories or tasks) in their different phases in a kanban board (e.g. to do, in progress, done), answering to:

  • Where is the commitment point? How many stories, or story points the team commits to deliver within a certain amount of time?
  • When will happen this delivery point?
  • Policies – which work should exist in a particular phase process phase and with which conditions?
  • Work in Progress limit (WIP Limit) – What is the team work in progress limit? How many tasks, stories or story points should be in progress at the same time?

The WIP limit is related with the acknowledgement that too many items in progress can be contra-productive and the limit itself guides the team to when is the best moment to start new items, smoothing out the flow of work and reducing lead times, improving quality, and delivering more frequently.

Let’s imagine that Hercules decides to execute the tasks to kill the Hydra of the nine heads once is already in the way with Cerbero, the dog of the three heads …it sounds an additional complexity factor for Hercules control the dog and fight with Hidra… 🙂

The progress line we can observe in the Kanban board allow us to observe and manage the flow of work in a service, that should maximize value delivery, minimize lead times and be as predictable as possible.  It enables extreme transparency, inspection and adaption in order to balance these potentially conflicting goals.  A key aspect of managing flow is identifying and addressing bottlenecks and blockers as soon as possible.

The regular team meetings, feedback loops and explicit definition of rules and policies helps to explain a process beyond just the listing of different stages in the workflow.  Policies should be sparse, simple, well-defined, visible, always applied, and readily changeable by the people working on the service.  Examples of policies include: WIP Limits, capacity allocation, definition of done, and other rules for work items existing various stages in the process.

Another interesting practice in is the evolutionary approach instead of a revolutionary. Kanban starts with the process as it currently exists and applies continuous and incremental improvement instead of trying to reach a predefined finished goal. The practice of experimental tasks, proof of concepts, pilots are also very common in Kanban.

Because work items tend to flow through a Kanban system in single piece flow, and each system is different with respect to stages in its workflow, the best way to describe the life-cycle of the Kanban method is via the feedback loops involved.

Strategy Review – a more strategic meeting, providing to the team the vision, priorities, justification and context for the next services to concentrate effort.

Operations Review – as mentioned in is a meeting to evaluate if the amount of resources invested in a particular item is enough or not. We can say that is a pure balance and fine tuning meeting for planning delivery.

Risk Review – risk evaluation and mitigation meeting.

Service Delivery Review – Team self reflection about how to improve work and delivery practice (similar to a retrospective).

Replenishment Meeting – planning meeting for a sprint or iteration.

The Kanban Meeting – Equivalent to a daily stand up.

Delivery Planning Meeting – Customer focused meeting to Monitor and plan deliveries to customers.

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