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Kanban in the Context of Continuous Innovation

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The invention of the Post-it Note was a happy accident. Nobody asked for sticky pieces of paper. For years, there was no demand for a weak adhesive. It is the kind of innovative product that would never have emerged from a kanban board.

The Kanban Method (or Kanban for short) is undoubtedly one of the most popular and useful tools available for managing knowledge work. With its simple (but not easy) practices and principles of visualizing work, managing flow, and limiting work in progress, the Kanban Method has successfully established itself as a leader in the Lean-Agile community.

Though many people see the kanban board as the default implementation of a kanban system, the Kanban Method does not prescribe a traditional ordering of work into status columns with work items moving from the left to the right. Other visualizations and spatial arrangements can be just as fine. (For example, I often let my work items flow down, not sideways.)

But no matter in which way you draw your kanban systems, Kanban is always about flow. Its purpose is the design, management, and improvement of flow systems for knowledge work. And this flow of knowledge work should maximize the delivery of value and be as predictable as possible. Kanban requires your work to have a flow from request to delivery of value.

This requirement also reveals the limits of what the Kanban Method can do for you. The best tools are always great in context. Sticky notes work very well on whiteboards and windows, but they’re terrible for use on carpeted walls. Kanban is terrific for the delivery of value; it’s not an obvious choice for the discovery of it.

When you are just leisurely strolling around a strange city, allowing yourself to be randomly triggered by its sights, smells, and sounds, Kanban will do nothing for you. When you are just randomly brainstorming ideas, inspired by a research wall full of unstructured insights, Kanban will not be of much help to you. When there are no requests for value, no defined statuses of work, and no commitments to deliver anything, the Kanban Method will patiently wait until you’ve identified what would be valuable.

Innovation Vortex - Kanban - Shiftup
Read any of the Kanban books, and you will see that Kanban is about the delivery of value, not the discovery of it. When it comes to services, Kanban focuses on service delivery and continuous improvement, not on exploration and experimentation. Kanban systems require that you have commitment points because only when you have committed to do something, you will have to manage the work until it’s delivery. The Kanban Method is not really helping you to creatively manage all your ideas, insights, and options before some of them become commitments.

Sticky notes don’t care whether you use them for commitments or options. They don’t see the difference between tasks and ideas. You will be okay as long as you use them on whiteboards or windows. Yes, extra-strong (super) sticky notes might work on carpeted walls. But you may be better off using other tools, such as tape or static notes.

Exploration Curve - Kanban - Shiftup
But the Kanban Method does make a difference because it assumes a pipeline of work between a request for value and it’s delivery. That means it is not a framework for managing a funnel of ideas and options and their validation through experimentation. Kanban is, without a doubt, a highly effective tool for the delivery of value, which is precisely why it is not an obvious choice to manage the discovery of it.

Does that make Kanban as a method useless for value discovery? Not at all! Similar to making extra-strong variants of sticky notes, you can adapt the tool and try to make it useful outside of its intended context.

    • You can choose to use Kanban to manage the flow of lean experiments that you run while working on new product ideas.
    • Or you can use a kanban board to manage a funnel of options as long as you know that only very few will make it to the final column.
    • You can search for “Upstream Kanban” and “Discovery Kanban” and learn about broader interpretations (and implementations) of flow.

The Kanban Method pursues continuous, evolutionary, and incremental improvement (kaizen), and, like Scrum, it does a fantastic job at that. But that also makes it not an obvious choice when it comes to discontinuous, revolutionary, and radical improvement (kaikaku). You may want to try alternative tools, from the realm of Design Thinking and Service Design.

Sticky notes emerged out of a revolutionary accident, not out of a continuous flow.


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