Decades ago, the need for speed prompted Canon, Honda, and Fuji Xerox to embrace a product development approach that later became the Scrum framework.

While the need for speed hasn’t changed, the greenfield environment that cleared the way for those 1980s Japanese product teams doesn’t exist in today’s large, complicated organizations. Legacy systems and geographically dispersed workforces require a new source of motivation, alignment, and cohesion that enable speed to market. 

Deceptively simple on the surface, the Kanban Method is proving itself to be that source. Intelligently applied and consistently practiced, Kanban can accelerate delivery within your teams and across your organization. 

The Top 7 Ways That Kanban Is Built for Speed

1) Uses frustrations to fuel change

Rather than impose a new process or legislate change, both of which can awaken resistance and further slow a team or system, Kanban says “Start where you are. Change nothing without first recognizing the need for change.” Inviting contact with sources of dissatisfaction may at first seem counterintuitive, but as the dormant energy of frustration turns — or is channeled into — the fuel of change, long-standing impediments are cleared and access to a new domain of action is realized. 

When do people change? When they get frustrated enough! 

2) Expedites cross-team alignment 

As work is visualized at multiple levels of an organization, patterns emerge and connections are revealed. Like a family tree that is in-motion and rapidly evolving, programs, initiatives, features, and stories are easily seen for their relationships and interdependencies. This in turn enables teams to see real-time how they are connected and contributing to the greater whole and the larger unit of customer value that is moving across the program board with their support. 

Teams suddenly feel connected to the greater purpose and may be more engaged and willing to bring their best ideas and work to the collective. Like a timing belt that precisely synchronizes the firing of pistons, Kanban enables systemic sight and coordination that increases performance.

3) Enables real-time performance tuning 

Cycle time, lead-time, and throughput are the core Kanban metrics that reveal your team’s performance in getting value into the hands of your customers. Considered over the appropriate time-horizon, the distribution histogram and run-charts give you the window that you need to diagnose and fine-tune your teams performance for increased speed and value delivery

The popular Scrum metric of velocity is commonly considered a vanity metric; velocity does not measure speed or responsiveness, while Kanban metrics do. 

4) Shows you the finish line, and how to get there

As market opportunities (in the form of work items) are decomposed, clarified, and begin moving through the delivery pipeline, a view of the finish line — and the steps to get there — gradually comes into focus. Informed by customer value, this view, and the shared visual understanding of the stages of knowledge discovery that are needed to get the work items (card, ticket, feature) moving brings clarity and motivation to the people doing the work.  

5) Puts you on the road, not on the roadmap

Rather than a linear, time-bound picture of quarterly goals and milestones, Kanban gives a dynamic view into “where things are today.” Kanban focuses at the level and time-horizon where you are operating. Seeing the real-time state of deliverables as they move (or not) through your organization gives you a feel for the road, putting your hands on the wheel. You become a driver rather than a back-seat passenger.

Like a great set of tires, Kanban gives you a sense of control and better grip on the road allowing you to accelerate with confidence toward your destination.

6) Lightens the team load, increasing agility 

A managed commitment point in the Kanban system limits work-in-progress, inviting workers to take on new work only as capacity allows. This “pull” system eases overburdening on workers, increases focus, and streamlines delivery. The added space in the system accommodates variability and allows the team to contend with surges (e.g., true expedite items) to deliver a quality product in a shorter time frame. 

By limiting WiP, people can focus on what matters and do their best work while better accommodating the unforeseen bumps in the road of unplanned work.

7) Turbo-charges your team’s thinking

Engineers, designers, and other creative types of knowledge workers are increasingly driven by purpose and autonomy. Kanban connects the team to customers and stakeholders in the context of value delivery, placing focus on the work and discovering the best way to move it through the creative process to completion. Unlike time-boxed, cadence-driven models like Scrum, Kanban’s flow paradigm and terminology expands thinking and gives the freedom to build, fix, and create that makers appreciate. 

When Kanban Falls Short

Despite its many advantages, the Kanban Method is hardly fool-proof. In a subsequent post, I’ll be exploring the shortcomings of Kanban in practice, including specific challenges around inter-team cooperation.