Lean and Kanban: Stretched to the Breaking Point?

Are Lean and Kanban being stretched to the breaking point?

Some may claim so!

What about Scrum!

With all due respect, please notice that I am not making a statement, but asking a question.

Lean and Kanban

Lean is an optimization (efficiency and effectiveness) paradigm. With roots in manufacturing, its proliferation is due to the universality of its principles, which involve:

  • Value
  • Eliminating Waste (Value Stream)
  • Limiting Work-In-Process (Continuous Flow and Level Pull)
  • Continuous Improvement (Pursue Perfection)

A Kanban is a “signal”. A Kanban system:

  • Integrate/Synchronize: Is a “signaling device” or “specific tool for controlling and regulating” the conveyance (pull-flow) of “material and information” in a value stream (composed of processes/activities/actions/steps);
  • Visualize: Is a “physical schedule [that is, visible] tool that tightly links and synchronizes production activity between upstream and downstream processes”;
  • Limit WIP: “Combines control over movement of material with respect to both time and quantity [that is, limits work-in-process/progress] dependant upon signals from the downstream process”.

See “Lean Lexicon”, “Creating Continuous Flow”, and “Creating Level Pull” for more information.

Essentially, Kanban is a tool that:

  • Mechanizes a value stream, fostering continuous flow and level pull;
  • Controls and regulates scheduling and synchronization for a collection of processes;
  • Helps operationalize Collaboration (the ultimate root cause of many challenges for organizations, teams, and individuals) relative to people integration and coordination.

However mechanized and operationlized, the root causes of why Collaboration is a challenge remain!

The Heart of Lean?

With all due respect…

If “thinking for yourself in your context” is the heart of Lean, then Lean is Everything and Everything is Lean as most people would claim that they “think for themselves in their context”. As Albert Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Respect People, Self Organization and Continuous Improvement?

With all due respect…

However, we should not forget the human factors, as they are inherently part of the Lean Thinking from which Kanban directly descends.

Human factors are inherently part of any successful human endeavor. As a colleague recently commented: “If you need Lean to tell you to ‘respect people’, you have more fundamental problems than you think!”

A Kanban System should respect people by allowing them to take ownership of process decisions.

How does a Kanban System “respect people”? “Should” is a key word! People respect people.

By allowing the team to take ownership of all the process decisions described above, a Kanban System automatically empowers them to self organize and continuously improve all the elements of the process.

How does a Kanban System “automatically empower”? How does “allowing the team to take ownership” “automatically empower”? “Allowing” and “automatically empower” are key words! People allow/confer ownership, people take ownership, and people empower people.

The primary mechanism for enabling this self organisation and continuous improvement is making the work visible.

As a tool, a Kanban System supports making the work visible. However, visibility may be necessary, but is it sufficient for self organization and continuous improvement? As the Introduction of The Art of War explicates: “However profound our individual wisdom, it will not survive in the world unless it is joined with some kind of power.”

Are Lean and Kanban being stretched to the breaking point?

Lean is an optimization (efficiency and effectiveness) paradigm, a Kanban is a “signal”, and a Kanban system is a tool. Kanban/Kanban-System is a Means not an End!

With all due respect, please notice that I am not making a statement, but asking a question.


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