Kanban is a critical element in agile project management. But if you don't manage the bottleneck, there will be unintended consequences.


Length: 3:05
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Creating one-piece flow is at the heart of Lean. Simply put, once work starts on a customer’s request:

  • it shouldn’t stop until it’s finished, and
  • it should flow effortlessly through each stage of the process without stopping.

Kanban is a simple, card-based system to enable one-piece flow.

Introducing this concept into the project world as part of the Agile methodology, is frequently called out as one of the main reasons for Agile’s success. Items are held on the product backlog and work does not start on them until there are sufficient resources available to ensure the item can be completed within a sprint.

As with all production lines there are inherent bottlenecks acting as constraints. These bottlenecks set the drumbeat for the overall production flow – you can only go as fast as the bottleneck allows.  The daily scrum meeting focuses on removing roadblocks to maintain flow.

And this is where we get to one of the major hurdles for organisations trying to digitise their business. Your sprint will quickly turn into an exasperating, meandering stroll, no matter how fast you churn out post-it notes, if you have a dependency on another part of the system beyond your control that is not set to work at the same rate as the parts of the system within your control.

Examples include changes requiring regulatory approval or a change to legacy infrastructure with only a limited number of releases a year.

This is where the unintended consequences kick-in. If you’re tasked and measured on delivering change at pace, that’s precisely what you are going to do: initiate change that you can complete whether it adds value to the customer or not. So, thousands of post-it notes may flow through the system to the complete bucket but how many of them are genuinely adding value?

Eliyahu Goldratt’s best-seller The Goal (there’s a lot to admire about an author who can turn a book on the Theory of Constraints into a bestseller) may have the answer. If you want to accelerate your organisational agility, focus your energy and resources on the bottleneck and you’ll soon see your Kantban turn to Kanban.

Pop Quiz:

  1. Q) How many bottlenecks are there in a system?
  2. A) One
  3. Q) When you find and remove the bottleneck, how many bottlenecks will there be in the system?
  4. A) One – there’s always a bottleneck.

Welcome to the circle of operational life!

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