This blogpost has been a collaborative effort between Jeroen Willemsen and Jasper Sonnevelt

In this post we will take a look at a real life example of a Scrum team transitioning to Kanban. We will address a few pitfalls and discuss how to circumvent those. With this we provide additional insights to advance your agile way of working.

The example

At the time we joined this project, three Scrum-teams worked together to develop a large software product. The teams shared a Product Owner (PO) and backlog and just had their MVP released. Now, bug-reports started coming in and the Scrum-teams faced several problems:

  • The developers were making a lot of progress per sprint, so the PO had to put a lot of effort in the backlog to create a sufficiently sized work inventory.New bugs came to light as the product started to become adopted. Filing and fixing these bugs and monitoring the progress was taking a lot of effort from the PO. Solving each bug in the next sprint reduced the team's response time.
  • Prioritizing the bug-fixing and the newly requested features became hard as the PO had to many stakeholders to manage.
  • The Product Owner saw Kanban as a possible solution to these problems. He convinced the team to implement it in an effort to deal with these problems and to provide a better way of working.

The practices that were implemented included:

  • No more sprint replenishment rhythm (planning & backlog refinement);
  • A Work in Progress (WIP) limit.

As a result the backlog quality started to deprecate. Less information was written down about a story and developers did not take the time to ask the right questions towards the PO. The WIP limit maximised the amount of work the team could take on. This made them focus on the current, sometimes unclear and too complex stories. Because of this developers would keep working on their current tasks, making assumptions along the way. These assumptions could sometimes lead to conflicting insights as developers would collaborate on stories, while at the same time being influenced by different stakeholders. This resulted in misalignment.

All of these actions resulted in a lower burn down rate, less predictability and therefore nervous stakeholders. And after a few weeks, the PO decided to stop the migration to Kanban, and go back to Scrum.

However, the latter might not have been necessary for the team to be successful. After all, it is about how you implement Kanban. There were a few key elements missing for instance. In our experience, teams that are successful (would) have also implemented:

  • Forecasting based on historical data and simulations: Scrum teams use Planning Poker and Velocity to make predictions about the amount of work they will be able to do in a sprint. When sprint cadence is let go this will become more difficult. Practices in the Kanban Method tell us that by using historical data in simulations, the same and probably more predictability can be achieved.
  • Policies for prioritizing, WIP monitoring and handover criteria: Kanban demands a very high amount of discipline from all participants. Policies will help here. In the case of this team, it would have benefited greatly from having clear defined policies about priorities and prioritization. For instance: Who can (and is allowed to) prioritize? How can the team see what has most priority? Are there different classes of service we can identify? And how do we treat those? The same holds for WIP-limits and handover criteria. We always use a Definition of Ready and Definition of Done in Scrum teams. Keeping these in a Kanban team is a very good practice.
  • A feedback cycle to review data and process on a regular basis: Where Scrum demands a retrospective after every sprint, Kanban does not explicitly define such a thing. Kanban only dictates that you should implement feedback loops. When an organization starts implementing Kanban it is key that they do review the implementation, data and process at a regular basis. This is crucial during the first weeks: all participants will have to get used to the new way of working. Policies should be reviewed as well, as they might need adjustments to facilitate the team in having an optimized workflow.

The hard thing about Kanban

What most people think and see when talking about Kanban is introducing WIP limits to their board, adding columns (other than To do, In Progress, Done) and stop using sprints. And herein lies one of the problems. For organizations that are used to working with Scrum letting go of sprints is a very unnatural thing to do. It feels like letting go of predictability and regular feedback. And instead of making the organization a bit better people feel like they have just taken a step back.

The hard thing about Kanban is that it doesn't provide you with a clear cut solution to your problems like Scrum does. Kanban is a method that helps you fix the problems in your organization in a way that best fits your context. For instance: it tells you to visualize a lot of things but only provides examples of what you could visualize. Typically teams and organizations visualize their process and work(types).

To summarize:

  • Kanban uses the current process and doesn't enforce a process of it's own. Therefore it demands a higher degree of discipline, both from the team-members and the the rest of the organization. If you are not aware of this the introduction of Kanban will only lead to chaos.
  • Kanban doesn't say anything about (To Do column) replenishment frequency or demo frequency.

Recommendations:

  • Implement forecasting based on historical data and simulations, policies for prioritizing, WIP limits and handover criteria and a feedback cycle to review data and process on a regular basis.
  • Define clear policies about how to collaborate. This will help create transparency and predictability.
  • The Scrum ceremonies happen in a rhythm that is very easy to understand and learn for stakeholders. Keep that mind when designing Kanban policies.