How to introduce Kanban in an organization

The initial impulse when introducing changes in an organization is to outline a scheme of predefined roles, responsibilities, tools and prescribe the ceremonies as a culmination of the above. Implement the new process as soon as possible, trying to be faithful to the theory, given the initial lack of knowledge, and move forward from there.

Profound changes in the usual ways of doing things are often met with opposition. If the initial proposal does not lead to the expected results, the entire transformation process will be threatened and the energies expended will be wasted.

It is possible that highly motivated organized groups can overcome this rejection thanks to their energy and enthusiasm, but this second type of group usually faces an even more perverse effect than the first: they are accomplices and, at the same time, slaves of the process. The process becomes the goal and consumes the efforts, leaving no room for delivering value and optimizing the decision-making process, which was the original reason for undertaking the transformation exercise.

Kanban, in this context, is in its natural environment. Kanban does not define a process, does not prescribe roles, does not prescribe ceremonies. Kanban waits for rules and commitments to emerge according to needs. It suggests a set of practices to improve an existing process, but even this is not a demand.

There are no better or worse ways to approach problems, there are solutions that work and solutions that do not work in a given environment. What works here and now, will not work somewhere else or some other time. Continuous improvement, constant experimentation and questioning of the current situation is what unleashes the power of transformations. 

A state must always be unstable since it can only move forward or backward, but not remain static. That is why, because of this need to advance and constantly question, no Kanban implementation is identical to another. Kanban is based on what is there, on the current state at the moment of intervention, and moves forward from there through a systematized process of experimentation.

1. Start with the now

Any process that wants to intervene in another existing process faces a seemingly simple, but complicated situation: Stop doing what you are doing the way you are doing it. The first step to get out of the hole is to stop digging.

Kanban uses a pragmatic approach, not changing anything, working from where you are, with what you know, understanding the processes, not as you would like them to be but how they are practiced in reality. Each process, taken one by one, is unique to each organization and has become established as a practice for a collection of diverse reasons that pertain to that particular context. It constitutes the foundation of evolution, of the process of discovery of practices and knowledge. Starting with the here and now, with existing means, indicates that roles and responsibilities are respected.

Design a Kanban system on that basis, with an understanding of flows, processes and interactions. The goal here is to achieve transparency about what and how things are done, how value is delivered.

Understand the current processes; question them relentlessly, experimenting through a process of progressive, cumulative and necessarily small changes, backed by metrics that help us establish where I am and how I will know I am moving forward.

2. Achieve consensus to seek continuous improvement through systematic evolution.

We want constant, small, cumulative changes that do not provoke a confrontational response and that are consolidated with agreements; we reject drastic changes without an empirical process of experimentation.

Cumulative change processes are related. These relationships are stronger than the nodes from which they started. Consensus changes and decisions with measurable experiments to lay the groundwork for the next iterative cycle limit the possible risk. A small, measurable change, followed by another, is always better than a change without consensus and radical.

Kanban is not efficient, given that resource management and opportunity cost are bent on acquiring information and creating a safety net oriented to continuous feedback, to agreement validated with metrics. Kanban is not efficient, it is effective, because its growth is not directed or centralized.

3. Encourage emerging leadership events wherever they occur.

Free acts of leadership should be supported and encouraged. It takes courage both to step into the leadership role and to accept and welcome it.

The best way is to seek constant involvement, suggest changes, experiments, new proposals or formulas. A healthy organizational culture encourages experimentation and emerging leadership.

Necessarily all contributions will not be the best, but in an empirical model, an unfavorable result is positive because it clears uncertainties and contributes to generate an environment where failure is assumed as a possible result, where experimentation is supported, tolerated and even encouraged.

Kanban advances steadily and systematizes cumulative change. It should not seek perfection, but rather sufficient improvement with the greatest possible consensus.

It starts from the here and now, including flows, processes, policies, roles and responsibilities. From that point, collaborate with the team to evolve from an idea of change. Encourages a culture that values emerging leadership, from all possible perspectives, to find opportunities for improvement.

If decisions must seek hierarchical approval, if the fear of being wrong prevents proposing changes or opinions, if there is no direct channel of communication with the person who must solve a problem, or if the person is more concerned with the position than with the solution, the processes suffer from a clear arterial rigidity that prevents evolution.

These three aspects of change, which are the core on which Kanban pivots, provide a solid foundation on which to evolve value delivery and decision making processes. Experiment fearlessly and maintain a healthy attraction to risk, support progress with metrics and have fun.

Image: Unsplash | @hjwinunsplsh


  • Jorge Alarcón

    Scrum Master en Keepler. “Working with people to build products that solve problems. Digital transformation is the new industrial revolution based on the fractal creation of team-based development systems. I collaborate with companies to understand problems and develop solution strategies.”