I've written about Kanban before, and many of you know that I use it extensively in my personal and professional lives. In my 16 March 2019 blog about Kanban and scrum, I ended by saying Kanban surfaces problems. What does that really mean?

Ignore the fancy web interfaces of Kanban in the tech space. Think of Kanban as a nondescript pull system. You only produce when the downstream work station tells you to. It is therefore impossible to overproduce. Compare it to a push system, where parts are forced into the process to keep everyone busy with no alignment to market demand or sales volume. Let's assume you see the obvious flaws with push systems and want to introduce Kanban as a remedy.

Suppose you decree that all work stations shall use Kanban. Great. Halfway through the work process, a task gets stuck. Maybe a part is missing, or a developer isn't available for a code review, or whatever else. This is where the proverbial "rubber meets the road". Weak leaders would cover up the problem by adding inventory with the goal of meeting production target quantities. "We are missing parts? That means we need to stockpile more parts here". In the service industry, they'd have the half-finished task sit on the back burner while they started a new task to buoy efficiency measurements.

Strong leaders would ask "Why is that work station not able to produce?" or "Why is that developer not available?" The answer is likely to be difficult and uncomfortable; it will almost always necessitate organizational change. This is always harder than a technical tweak or feature introduction. To paraphrase my "The Soul of a Slave" post, leaders see process improvement as a series of problems and solve them. Inventory isn't a source of waste, but rather a result of waste.

I've never worked in network operations full time, but spent much of 2017 and 2018 helping a massive bureaucracy run a global network. I regularly checked the team Kanban board to see how quickly work tasks were moving. I also regularly observed tasks getting stuck in the "doing" column because key people weren't around or customer information was missing. The push system answer is "Just start another task to stay busy" while the lean thinker (and honestly, the principled leader) asks "How can we overcome this problem to improve our process?" Kanban showed us the waste and we ignored it.

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