Introduce Kanban by its values

The Kanban or the intention of continuous improvement as described David J. Anderson, is often introduced by its 6 fundamental practices and its 4 founding principles. mike burrows, author of the excellent Kanban from the inside, offers us a whole new perspective by trying to identify the values behind the method. With his agreement, I propose below the translation of thearticle that emerged from this reflection.


Introductions to the Kanban Method tend to begin with a description of the kanban card wall (a tool) and lead to the description of its fundamental practices. If you are lucky, you may even be entitled to its founding principles.

Here I have attempted a different approach, one that gives equal weight to both principles (which I believe should come first – they're not called 'founding' for nothing) and core practices by identifying the values that support them. By doing this, we would cover most of the main elements of the method and perhaps it would also work as a teaching framework?

Regardless, the outcome is holistic (values are broadly applicable at many levels), which holds true for Kanban's purpose of guiding evolutionary organizational change, and helps address three misconceptions:

  1. that Kanban is somehow a software development process
  2. that Kanban does not have at its heart the kind of values that will both challenge an organization and guide its agents of change, and
  3. that Kanban is only for statisticians in control-oriented organizations (I'm just exaggerating that last misconception a bit)

Moreover, I also hope to demonstrate that a values-based description is useful for other, more constructive reasons.

My starting point


In the usual sequence of the Founding Principles of Kanban, I identify 4 values: the comprehension, I'OK, THE respect and the leadership. The first requires a little justification but the other three can be read directly into the principles as they are typically worded.

The values behind the 6 Fundamental Practices are a bit trickier, not because they're not there but because the match isn't exactly one-to-one. I chose another group of 4 (that's 8 so far): the transparency, I'balance, THE flow and the collaboration. However, while I found it helpful to start from this obvious sequence, I was compelled to add one - the customer focus – which makes 9 in total.

As I expand on each of these, we'll discover a few more candidates to include – I'll highlight in bold anything that looks like a value (abstract names, typically). The latter, however, are less important, less axiomatic, less "fundamental."

The 9 core values of Kanban

1. Understanding


Comprehension is one of the less obvious values of Kanban. I read it in the first founding principle, " Start where we are“. Understand what you're changing, whether it's small details of a process or how it responds under stressful conditions, or something as abstract as your organization's overall approach to change.

Insist on understanding because a healthy process that cannot defend itself is a sign that you have forgotten what you believe in.

The Process Myth, Rands in Repose

In our Kanban training, we teach an approach drawn from Systems Thinking that puts understanding very high on our list of priorities. It is there in our introductions to the method, at the base of the very first lesson exercise. Where does the work come from? What characterizes the different types of work? What approaches to change and improvement issues tend to succeed or fail, both generally and specifically in your organization? For what reasons ?

By definition, lack of understanding is what characterizes implementations of the cargo cult. Even with good intentions, there is a likelihood that understanding will be lost when change is top-down driven, poorly justified (overly relying on the interest of best practices for example) and passed thoughtlessly between organizational layers. It is therefore no surprise that change projects have a tendency to disappoint. Unfortunately for the lazy or incompetent manager, the comprehension and its associated values oflearning and D'alignment require effort.

2. Agreement


I'Deal is there, in the second founding principle: Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change“. I like to put it another way: did you reasonably expect to be successful in implementing the change without it? Could it be the lack of agreement that limits your progress? Or maybe there is some kind of agreement but not deep enough – you agree that a problem exists but not its impacts or causes (see comprehension) ?

This principle would seem to suggest another value, that of incrementalism. I would, however, avoid describing this as a core value, for the simple reason that we promote incremental and evolutionary change because it has a high chance of succeeding, not because its alternatives in the radicalism where the conservatism are never better. And if the pragmatism is a value, this is a very slippery one.



THE " Respect for people is a pillar of Lean. Kanban applies this to the problem of organizational change in its third principle: Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities & job titles“.

As in life, the respect is a good guide to implementing change. Will it increase your chances of success if you start by insinuating that people are doing a bad job, that their roles are useless? Probably not. Is it useful to assume bad intentions? Again, probably not. But does respect just mean “being kind”? Again, no:

Showing respect to people doesn't mean you have to love them, agree with their views, and stop challenging their half-hearted reasoning.

Stephen Parry

This kind of respect requires courage, which takes us to our next value.



THE leadership appears in most success stories but it was only in 2012 that it was added as a founding principle, in the form of: " Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization – from individual contributor to senior management“.

Much has been written about leadership and I won't add to it here except to make a few quick observations:

i. You might want an autocrat – a Steve Jobs (or a Steve Ballmer) perhaps – but leadership of the "every level" type is something different.

ii. While leadership is something to be esteemed, management is not inherently to be despised either. (do you remember the respect ?)

iii. Moreover, neither the leadership nor the management rules out theself-organization, where individuals, teams and systems have the ability to adapt without centralized direction.

iv. Good leadership involves challenge (we have already used this word). As agents of change, we must be prepared both to challenge and to be challenged.

5. Flow


Turning to the practices, we will start with the third: "Manage the flow".

The management part of this practice talks about tactical organization and decision-making with the objective of moving the work forward towards an optimal result (efficiency). On some level – albeit with varying degrees of success – this is universal.

THE Flow adds something less common, a sense of regularity and of predictability; Addressing impedimenta to them in a systematic way is a powerful improvement approach, exemplified in Lean.

We also estimate the flux in the sense Csikszentmihalyi, this very positive state of total absorption in what we do. This type of flow is hard to find when distraction, interruption, and constant priority shifts dominate the work environment.

6. Customer Focus


We're not done with "Manage Flow" yet! An extended version of this practice might look like:

Manage for timely completion the steady flow of customer recognized value across a variety of deadlines

Value is used as much in the sense of aim (by understanding the "why" of customers) than in the monetary sense (taking care not to confuse theusefulness with the simple cost). A customer-focused completion concern means going beyond the activity-centric “completed task” or product-centric “potentially deliverable product.” In my experience, this is a surprisingly ambitious concept whose impact can be far-reaching.

Work that is completed but not yet benefiting the customer is just sunk cost. We'll come back to this issue and address the "over a variety of timeframes" part when we look at value. Balance.

7. Transparency


There Transparency reinforces 3 of the fundamental practices of Kanban:

  • the first one : " Visualize [the work]
  • the fourth : " Make the rules of the process explicit
  • and the fifth (another 2012 addition): “ Implement feedback loops“.

Kanban creates transparency on several levels:

i. By making work visible

ii. By making visible the streams through which work items pass and the states occupied by the real work items at any given time

iii. By making visible the parameters, rules and constraints that guide decision-making and ultimately direct the overall performance of the system

iv. By making the impact of all of the above visible in customer-facing performance metrics.

The first 2 types of visibility come naturally from the kanban systems after which the Kanban method was named. The first 3 together create leverage points – points in our systems where significant change can be made with relatively little cost or effort. The 4th (a feedback loop) tells us that the change is taking us in the right direction.

Kanban is thus a way of evolving systems that learn and adapt, a strategy for organizations to find greater accuracy in the competitive ecosystems they inhabit.

8. Balance


The second core practice is “Limiting Work in Progress (WIP)”. Limiting WIP in a process has several benefits:

  • Thanks to the Little's Law, lead times (and therefore feedback cycles) tend to get shorter; the customer is satisfied sooner and learning accelerates.
  • Work begins only when capacity becomes available. This creates a flow from the perspective of work items and keeps inventory and demand in balance from the perspective of the team or the worker. (respect !)
  • With just a little extra refinement, we can easily find the balance between different types of operational work and between operational work and improvement work.

This last point suggests another principle: “Embrace the variety”. Systems that do well with variety can be described as having a resilience which is good for the client, the organization and the worker; another example ofbalance. Kanban's help in scaling resilient systems that can give predictability to a variety of work item types across a range of performance perspectives (timelines ranging from perhaps hours or days to months or more) is truly a killer feature.

To learn more about the role of the team in Kanban, see the David Anderson conference entitled When Kanban is not appropriate [video(eng)][slides(eng)]My conference Kanban the hard way [video(eng)][slides(eng)] includes an exploration of variety and resilience.

9. Cooperation


There Collaboration presents itself in the 6th (and last) fundamental practice: Improve collaboratively, Evolve experimentally [using models [and the scientific method]]“.

By relying on theOK, THE respect and the customer focus, there collaboration creates the perspective that we will look beyond our own team boundaries when addressing the impedimenta of the flow.

The full version of this practice (with the two optional parts included) talks about working systematically in ways that improve the comprehension through observation, model building, experimentation and measurement (empiricism).

"Using models" has a second meaning which suggests the values of curiosity and even of generosity. Kanban actively encourages its practitioners to look outside the method into a growing body of knowledge. Kanban recognizes its roots in Lean, Theory of Constraints and Agile, its foundations in queuing theory and complexity science, its influences as diverse as Lean Startup and family therapy. Individual practitioners have their own favorite models – I rely for example on the A3, GROW and Influencer.

Why stop at 9?


It bothered me that the Lean value of the customer focus cannot be obviously inferred from the standard formulation of Kanban's founding principles and core practices – you could say I must have cheated! Although I think she fully deserves her place.

This is less the case for these other values that I have identified:

  • I'learning and thealignment have strong associations with comprehension. I fully agree that these might make a big deal but I've gone with the one that I think best reflects Kanban's roots in Systems Thinking. My most recent article emphasizes learning, so it was difficult!
  • THE challenge (Also vision) and the courage sufficiently overlap with the leadership so that I do not consider them axiomatic. See related article Dole out the 3C's.
  • I'self-organization would rank high in organizational design value but the respect seems to be an adequate guide for a change agent. All other things being equal, the respect would prefer a solution that allows or relies on theself-organization rather than another who would not.
  • There resilience presents itself strongly in my thinking but it describes a result more than an approach. There regularity and the predictability likewise.

Let's put values to work


So let's see our 9 values together:

Understanding, Agreement, Respect,

Leadership, Flow, Customer Focus,

Transparency, Balance, Collaboration

Admittedly, that's a rather long list - longer than the initial 3 or 4 values I've repeatedly cited for some time - but not so long that one would be unable to argue about it. recall or refer to it.

Do some of them resonate with you more strongly than others? What does this mean to you ? I would explore this at a leadership retreat – the differences between practitioners will be revealing!

Do you find any of them missing in your current environment? Again, what does this mean for you? Does this suggest to you that things really need to be rectified?

For example, I can remember times when the lack of the right kind ofOK had either slowed the pace of change or resulted in change that could be reversed too easily. From what I read, I don't think I'm unique in this case.



I made values explicit - this is the transparency in action – creating an opportunity to challenge (i.e. I would like to see the customer focus appear more explicitly in the fundamental method), and increasing my comprehension at least one source of inefficiency.

Whether you or the wider community choose the same values is an interesting question worthy of group exploration. How would you do differently about this? Would love to see other attempts. Could the values I have chosen benefit from additional structure or a different sequence? Or are the values so fragile that they are better left unexpressed?

Continuing a line of thought begun a few months ago in an article “ How deep is your Kanban“Could values provide a better foundation for a second-generation Kanban assessment tool? Would highlighting the practices of the current tool hide the true objective of the method? I really think that might be the case.

Whether this is a good way to introduce Kanban, we can only know by testing it. That's what I intend to do!

See also

A article on a workshop on Kanban values by Christophe Keromen on the coactiv's blog


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Olivier MY

Trained as an engineer and passionate about people, I quickly turned to the world of Agile coaching and Professional coaching. Today, I support individuals, teams and organizations towards creating value adapted to the constraints and challenges of today's world. I am committed to contributing to the professionalization of the profession, in particular through detailed feedback and inspirations highlighting the importance of an open, curious and respectful posture.


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