July 12, 2011

The Kanban Board and Gemba Walk: Two Powerful Mechanisms for Agile Communication and Change


It started with a shriek.

"You have a block!”

That's what one of our solutions consultants exclaimed as she passed by our Kanban board. When I asked about her reaction, she explained it was the first time she had seen one of our cards, which are similar to user stories, in the “blocked” column.

As I reflected on her feedback, it reminded me of the combined power of the Kanban board and the Gemba walk.

What Are Kanban Boards?

Kanban boards are communication tools.

They're part of a class of tools called "information radiators" because they radiate information about an endeavor that should be providing value to the organization. Endeavors can be either project or operations based.

In this post I refer to Kanban boards. But the board discussion could easily translate into another work visualization board type. One example is a “Scrum board” for those using Scrum. Or it could be a more generic form, often called a "task board."

The best Kanban boards:

  • Use updates made by the team members who are performing the work.
  • Facilitate a sense of community when the team is performing their stand-up.
  • Give stakeholders a full, unobstructed view of the work at hand.
  • Are easily accessed and are not restricted by layers of security.
  • Are highly visible.
  • Are highly transparent.
  • Enable teams and management to quickly identify bottlenecks in the workflow or value stream.
  • Encourage stakeholders to go to the Gemba.

What Is A Gemba Walk?

What is a Gemba walk anyway?

IT Managers Inbox describes Gemba walks as “getting managers and leadership out of their offices and into the workplace."

This description offers a good start. But Gemba walks should be used by more than just management.

Gemba Walks Are For Everyone

All stakeholders should be encouraged to go on a Gemba walk to better understand what’s happening in their organization.

Gemba walks often involve asking pointed questions related to the focus of the walk, such as the ones asked by my coworker!

Recently I took a Gemba walk through the marketing department. Imagine my surprise when I found not one, but two Kanban boards up. During my Gemba walk, I asked two questions:

  • Why are you using a Kanban board?
  • What value has it added since you started using it? 

Here is a summary of their responses:

"We're using a Kanban board to help with both project visibility and task ownership. The benefit has been that it's much easier for everyone on the team to know what other team members are working on, see the status of items, and see what we've accomplished. It keeps project and tasks moving, and cuts down on the 'who is working on what' confusion that we were running into."

"We were looking for lightweight project management options, or at least a base-level of status tracking. The value has been in  helping to illuminate what folks are working on."

Nico Krüger, General Manager for ALM/Helix Plan (formerly Hansoft), noted that using Kanban boards with our customers has yielded the following value:

  • It is a very easy way of managing work and making it visible to everyone.
  • You get a sense of progress because you can see what was done and what has yet to be completed or started.
  • It makes scope change easier to manage because people can quickly see the impact of changes.
  • It is easy to set up, so it is a quick win for any project.
  • It gives customers a feeling that we know what we are doing and not just starting on tasks in no real order.
  • You can quickly identify road blocks using a Kanban board — it's not just data in an Excel spreadsheet.

Agile Is For Everyone

By the way, have you realized yet that what I'm talking about in this post also includes managing business processes, not just software development?

Kanban boards (or other work visualization boards) and Gemba walks work together to help improve results and value delivery within the entire Agile organization.

They make it possible for anyone in the organization to contribute to continuous improvement. Not the least of which is the identification of blocks or impediments and the speed at which such issues are resolved.

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