The Kanban Board and Gemba Walk, Two Powerful Mechanisms for Agile Communication and Change

It started with a shriek.  "You have a block!” Ghesu Ndefru, one of our solutions consultants at Seapine exclaimed as she passed by the Agile Services' Kanban board.   When I asked about her reaction, she explained that it was the first time she had seen one of our cards, which are similar to user stories, in the “blocked” column.  As I reflected on the feedback, it reminded me of the combined power of the Kanban board and the Gemba walk, that latter of which I will discuss later in the post.  For this post I refer to Kanban board, but the board discussion could easily translate into another work visualization board type, such as a “Scrum Board” for those using Scrum or a more generic form, often called a "Task Board".

Since starting with Seapine late last year, one of the most challenging concepts for me to convey to the teams here has been the value of the Kanban board, especially a physical board.  We’ve had more than a few lively discussions around its importance and value within Agile organizations.  Knowing that seeing is believing, the Agile Services team was the first to employ this type of workflow visualization at Seapine.

Kanban boards are communication tools, and are one of a class of tools called information radiators.  In other words, they radiate information about endeavors that should be providing value to the organization.  Endeavors can be either project or operations based.

In my experience, the best Kanban boards share (at least) the following characteristics:

  • Updated by the team members who are performing the work
  • Facilitate a sense of community when the team is performing their stand-up
  • Give stakeholders a full, unobstructed view of the work at hand
  • Easily accessible and not restricted by layers of security
  • Highly visible
  • Highly transparent
  • Enable teams and management to quickly identify bottle necks in  the workflow or (value stream)
  • Encourage stakholders to go to the "Gemba"

This brings me back to Ghesu and her Gemba walk.  What is a Gemba walk anyway? IT Managers Inbox describes  Gemba walks as “getting managers and leadership out of their offices and into the workplace”. I think this offers a good start, but I believe the Gemba walk should be used by more than just management.  All stakeholders should be encouraged to get out and perform a Gemba walk to better understand what’s happening within their organization.  Gemba walks often involve asking pointed questions related to the focus of the walk, such as the ones asked by my associate Ghesu, much to my delight!

Recently I performed a Gemba walk through the Marketing department.  Imagine my surprise when I found not one, but two Kanban boards up.  During my Gemba walk, I asked our product marketing manager Matt Harp and our director of corporate communications Sarah Wigser, two questions: “Why are you using a Kanban board?” and “What value has it added since you started using it?”

Here is a summary of their responses:

Sarah: "We're using a Kanban board to help with both project visibility and  task ownership. The benefit has been that it's much easier for everyone on the team to know what other team members are working on, see status of items, and see what we've accomplished. I think it keeps things flowing and cuts down on the 'who is working on what' confusion that we were running into."

Sarah's visual board

Matt: We we're looking for "light-weight project management options, or at least a base-level of status tracking".  The value has been in the helping "to illuminate what folks are working on".

Matt's visual board

Nico Kruger, one of our solutions consultants in Australia, noted that using Kanban boards with our customers has yielded the following value:

    • It is a very easy way of managing work and having it all be visible to everyone
    • You get a sense of progress as you can see what was done and what is yet to be completed or started
    • It makes scope change easier to manage as people can quickly see the impact..almost without asking
    • It is easy to setup so it is a quick win for any project I do
    • It also gives customers a feeling that we know what we are doing and not just starting on stuff in no real order
    • Identify road blocks quickly using the visual board… it is not just a excel sheet somewhere

    By the way, have you realized yet that what I'm talking about in this post also includes managing business processes, not just software development? Kanban boards (or other work visualization boards) and Gemba walks work together to help improve results and value delivery within the entire Agile organization (not just the software part).   They make it possible for anyone within the organization to contribute to continuous improvement (or Kaizen). Not the least of which is the identification of blocks or impediments and the speed at which such issues are resolved.  Adding frequent stand-ups to the process will further improve the organization's ability to deliver, but stand-ups are the subject of another post!

    Do you use Kanban or perform Gemba walks? I'd like to know what you think.

    Oh, and one more thing (if I may take a play from the Steve Jobs' playbook). I'm excited to announce that next month at the Agile 2011 conference, Seapine will be demonstrating an exciting new capability for the Test Track product line, related to work visualization. If you're quick, you've probably already spotted it in the post. Please stop by our booth to learn more about this enhancement. At the very least, you'll walk away with some cool swag!