4 Signs Your Kanban Implementation Is Screwed

Kanban is a really effective tool that can help you visualize your work... when implemented correctly. I've been working on introducing and coaching Kanban lately, and I've found it's not easy to make a smooth transition. If you are starting to use Kanban on your team, there are a few warning signs you should look out for that can signal that your implementation might not be going so well.

Warning #1: You have 30 minute conversations about the color of the card, the name of the columns, or how to filter out tags.

"What color should we make that task? Blue? No, we have blue already. Let's do red. No red's an issue. Can we tag it instead? How do we filter on tags?"

If your team would rather debate what color the card should be than talk about ways to get their tasks done, something is very wrong. There's a term for this. It's called bikeshedding. Bikeshedding is where we debate about trivial issues and ignore the things that actually matter. If your team has a habit of bikeshedding, then they are not using the Kanban effectively. All conversations should revolve around how we're going to get the work done, where are we, and what we can improve. Of course at the beginning of an implementation, you'll need to get the structure down. But, if it's been 3 months and these conversations are still dragging on, you have a problem.

Warning #2: You don't talk about goals or progress during standup.

Every morning we have a kanban standup that looks at the work to be done on the board and what everyone has accomplished the day before. After standup, we talk about where we can improve our workflow, which is usually apparent on the board. One day I noticed that we have been talking about what we've done each day, but I still wasn't sure if we were making progress towards our goal or not. If Kanban's purpose is to visualize your work, you need to make sure you are also visualizing progress. Otherwise, how can you tell if you are doing the work well? If your teams don't have concrete evidence that they are making progress, it's time for management to go back and set some measurable goals and communicate them.

Warning #3: Cards miraculously appear in doing.

The flow of our boards usually goes Backlog > Next > Doing. When a team member needs more work, they can move a card from Next into Doing, as we have already planned and prioritized those items. I've seen many times where we get into standup and find new cards in Doing that were never in Next. Of course really important issues might come up and you'll need to deal with them, but this doesn't happen every, single day. Teams that bypass the planning and jump into the work are often struggling with prioritization. Also, executives could be asking for many quick, unplanned favors that require the teams to context switch too often. Cards being created in Doing is a huge sign this could be happening to your team.

Warning #4: You make cards to remind you to deal with problems with the cards.

This is another form of bikeshedding. When one of my teams was doing continuous improvement on their kanban board, they would routinely come up with experiments that involved making a card to remind them to fix the problems with the other cards. For example, we saw that one team was having trouble with prioritization. So they decided to do an experiment to implement goals for the cards. Then cards appeared on the board that reminded them to set goals for the cards. This type of inception can lead to really complicated boards and take the focus away from getting the work done.

 

There are many underlying causes for these warning signs. Some I was able to mention, but a lot of it goes deeper. While I can't diagnose every cause without working directly with your team, I've found the most of the common ones were these:

  • Kanban could be the wrong tool.
  • Your team might not be ready for it yet, meaning they cannot grok the concepts.
  • Your team cannot self organize.
  • Your team does not know how to prioritize.
  • There is no system for handling new work or quick tasks assigned by management.
  • Managers are not harnessing the valuable data they can get from the Kanban board.

and the one we rarely account for but is the mother of all problems

  • You did a really bad job explaining the purpose of the tool, which is above all, to visualize the work.

Every team is different, it may be a combination of these causes that are inhibiting your kaban paradise, or it could be primarily one. Teams also take some time to get adjusted to new tools, and that should be considered. If you're experiencing any of these signs after a few months though, something needs to change. It's better to recognize the warning signs early so you can act.