I’m very excited to present to you this interview with David J. Anderson. He’s a Management author, consultant & trainer and Pioneer of the use of Kanban Systems in creative & knowledge worker industries (versus Personal Kanban and Family Kanban). I’m grateful he took the time out of his very busy schedule to spend with us and in answering our questions.
In this interview (view other leadership and thought leader interviews), you’ll learn:
- The long road of discovery, self-reflection, and learning that led up to the development of Kanban for use in creative and knowledge work.
- What influenced David’s thinking in his development of the virtual Kanban system for creative and knowledge work.
- A few case studies of where Kanban has been implemented, and the broad support and acceptance by companies of all types.
- Despite broad support, there remains some resistance still – what are the common objections and why?
Enjoy the article and read more about David and his work after the interview.
Hi David. Can you tell my audience a little about yourself and your work?
I grew up in Scotland. My background is in software. I started as a games developer in the early 1980s. I went to university later and studied electronics, mostly control systems engineering and almost took a PhD in wind turbine design but the funding for the research fell through and instead I took a job as the development manager at a 5 year old startup company. I did startups for most of my 20s then moved in big corporations arriving in the United States in 1999 where I worked for Sprint PCS and later Motorola’s PCS division as department manager/director. My last real job was Senior Director of Software Engineering at Corbis, a company privately owned by Bill Gates.
These days I am Chairman of Lean Kanban Inc., a firm that licenses my intellectual property and training materials to certified trainers around the world, and organizes a series of conferences globally. Some years there can be as many as 14 of these happening around the world. This year we have 9 or 10 on 3 continents.
I’m best known these days for my work introducing virtual kanban systems into software development and for its spread into general knowledge work and creative industries. It also spawned the Personal Kanban movement as one of my business partners at the time, Jim Benson, documented how to apply the ideas to our personal lives and personal productivity. In the past I’ve been known as a contributor to the Agile Software Development movement and I’d also published work in the fields of Object-Oriented Analysis & Design and User Interface Design.
I’ve written 3 books, Agile Management for Software Engineering (2003), Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business (2010), and Lessons in Agile Management (2012). I have a few unfinished manuscripts in development and expect to have a new book published next year.
You are credited with applying the use of Kanban to creative and knowledge work. Can you take us back in history and share the context that led up to the development of the Kanban method and what influenced its development?
My first book was inspired by a synthesis of Feature-Driven Development (one of the methods that was recognized at the foundation of the Agile Software Development movement), Donald Reinertsen’s work in New Product Development and specifically his ideas on flow of information discovery, and Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (and specifically his Drum-Buffer-Rope solution for bottlenecks in flow). The book demonstrated how to visualize flow of software development in the Feature-Development process using cumulative flow diagrams (from Reinertsen) and then recognize bottlenecks (from Goldratt) and provided guidance on how to improve based on this information.
When Reinertsen saw my work, he casually remarked that I had all the building blocks in place to implement a kanban system for software development and he argued strongly that this would produce more reliable results the Drum-Buffer-Rope approach because chance cause variability in knowledge work processes has a bigger influence on flow than the presence of bottlenecks. I’ve learned over the years that he is right in this thinking and that in perhaps 90% of cases variability dominates and bottlenecks are not a particularly relevant way to find improvement opportunities.
In 2004, a manager at Microsoft in their IT division, Dragos Dumitriu, approach me for advice on improving his software maintenance department based in Hydrabad in India. It was the first time, I got to apply the kanban system approach. The kanban were virtual and implemented in software that triggered an email when there was a “kanban” free in the database of the work tracking system. The email to manager triggered a “pull” in the system. It worked very well. We more than trebled the delivery rate from that department, and reduced lead time by over 90%. The on-time delivery performance rose from 0% to 98%. All of this over a 15 month period and spending very little money. The results were impress enough for both of us to believe that the technique should be used again.
I didn’t really understand what The Kanban Method was until I came to write the book published in 2010, and I didn’t understand where it came from until I wrote Lessons in Agile Management 2 years later.
When I was writing my first book in 2002, I realized that I was largely writing the wrong book. The intent was to show that Agile Software Development methods produced an economically superior outcome and to model this with product development flow and Theory of Constraints. The book assumed that organizations were installing an Agile method. As I wrote the book, and from painful experience I was gaining at Motorola, I came to realize that people resist the imposition of prescribed methods of working. So what I really wanted was an evolutionary approach where improvements start from the current process – there is no prescribed defined new process to be adopted and followed.
Initially, I’d viewed the use of kanban systems as simply one incremental step, deployed when appropriate to improve workflow. It wasn’t until we put up boards in January 2007 and introduced formal feedback mechanisms such as operations reviews that we started to see evolutionary change. Until 2007, I’d viewed the managerial things I did to drive evolutionary change such as a focus on facts, data, empirical observation, pragmatism, collaboration, empowerment and operations review as separate from the use of kanban systems.
When I came to document Kanban in 2009, I simply wrote it all down as one thing. It wasn’t until I was curating and editing my blog archive from 12 years of blogging, for the Lessons in Agile Management book, that I spotted that two separate threads in my work had come together and merged into the one thing we now know as The Kanban Method during 2007.
I’ve drawn an analogy to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do approach to Chinese martial arts with the Kanban Method. It takes its name from one core practice but is in fact an evolutionary approach. With Jeet Jun Do, the “way of the intercepting fist” the name comes from a single move but the method is evolutionary and involves each practitioner evolving their own unique style. With the Kanban Method, the name comes the use of kanban systems but the method is evolutionary and each service delivery workflow evolves uniquely to serve its customers better.
If you don’t consider your work to be inspired by or related to the Toyota Production System, why do you use the terms Lean and Kanban, as in LeanKanban University? Do you feel that adds to a branding confusion?
I consider a lot of my work to be inspired by the Lean Product Development movement and particularly that of Donald Reinertsen, and in turn his work inspired by Marvin Patterson. I’ve also adopted aspects of Michael Kennedy’s work particularly naming conventions to avoid confusion. Clearly kanban systems are part of TPS and we’ve also demonstrated that Heijunka is a valid and useful technique though we don’t refer to it as Heijunka to avoid too much arcane language from manufacturing and industrial engineering. So clearly, my work has a significant Toyota influence.
I also consider what we do to be very close to the core of the Toyota way, in that it is driven as a management and cultural approach rather than as an industrial engineering or process improvement approach. We expect all managers to be trained in our methods and for it to become a day-to-day part of their jobs. We don’t expect what we teach to be led by process improvement groups, though we know that it often is, particularly in Western companies. I don’t consider my work to be inspired or referential to much if anything every published by members of LEI or practiced by McKinsey.
The brand LeanKanban actually comes from an accident. We discovered another firm was planning to start a web site called Lean-Agile University to promote classes in Lean Software Development and Kanban. At the time, we had just formalized a trade association agreement with 16 partners globally to license our training curriculum and teach it in their local languages. We needed a web site to list those classes. So we formed a joint venture with that other firm and the name evolved to Lean-Kanban University.
Later I bought that other partner out of the firm, merged it with our conference business and renamed simply to Lean Kanban Incorporated. For now we retain the “university” term in the brand of the training materials but that may change at some stage in the future. The word Kanban isn’t something you can protect as a trademark. So we needed “something”-Kanban or Kanban-“something” and so why not Lean Kanban? It’s just a handle for referring to our particular flavor of management training. I’m proud that we’ve been able to develop something as powerful as Toyota’s system for manufacturing and supply chain management that can be used widely across creative and knowledge worker industries.
There seems to broad support and interest from the software development community in trying Kanban. What are some quantifiable and qualitative benefits you’ve seen when organizations adopt Kanban. Can you share a specific example from your experience?
There are many documented case studies. Not all of them show quantitative results. Often the baseline was so immature there is no quantitative baseline from which to measure the improvement. Where there was a quantitative baseline, the results are often stunning, and eye-popping to those from a manufacturing background.
- At Microsoft, we more than trebled productivity.
- The BBC produced a 700% improvement. This result is documented in IEEE Management, a peer-reviewed academic journal.
- Another improvement initiative at Hewlett-Packard’s printer firmware group showed an 800% improvement with fully 50% of that (or 400% improvement) directly attributed to the use of Kanban. The purely qualitative results are impressive too.
- The CIO of Blizzard Skis in Austria won the Austrian CIO of the Year award in 2013 for his Kanban implementation. The factory had earlier implemented a classic Lean production system with the help of Porsche Consulting. They became the world’s first Lean ski manufacturer.
- One of Europe’s fastest growing and most successful startups, Jimdo, in Hamburg use Kanban for the whole company, even the building janitor has his own Personal Kanban board!
We see Kanban adopted at the largest firms on most major continents. Petrobras in Rio de Janeiro has an entire business unit running on Kanban.
- China: Some of China’s largest firms such as Huawei (a telecom equipment manufacturer) and Ping An (a financial services company) are also large adopters. Inward investment business in China and India are also adopters such as Thomson Reuters, Microsoft (the former Nokia), Volvo, and Sabre Holdings.
- Russia: One of the largest banks in Russia is a big adopter across its entire IT department. Russia’s largest software outsource firm is also a big adopter.
- Australia: Australia’s Telstra had 6000 people trained in Kanban. I
- Israel: Israel’s largest indigenous software firm, Amdocs, has over 2000 people doing Kanban.
We’ve seen published case studies from LAN airlines in Chile, and BBVA one of Spain’s largest banks. That implementation won a prestigious Spanish quality award for the consultants from Atos in Barcelona who led the initiative. There is adoption in the British, Canadian, German and US public sectors. We’re seeing Kanban show up in immigration services, driver license processing, and in the supply chain for the navy and the air force. We have 5 years of global conference presentations collected on video with many case studies from all over the world. Most of these only show qualitative benefits but the theme is consistent – happier workers, better economic outcomes, more satisfied customers.
Wow, that is amazing and congratulations on your massive positive influence. Despite broad support, there’s probably some that are skeptical and are resistant to change. What do you think is holding some people back from trying Kanban?
Ha! I teach 3 days of my class for consultants and coaches on this topic. The Kanban Method exists because people resist change so we expect and anticipate resistance. The main points of resistance are: deferred commitment – the just-in-time nature of Kanban; fear of reduced worker utilization due to flow problems; fear of transparency; and a failure to comprehend the probabilistic approach to planning, forecasting, and expectation setting. While a number of significantly capable software products have also appeared to support Kanban, most adopters tend to stick with legacy work tracking software that supports Kanban in only minimal ways. This is definitely an impediment to full adoption.
The dedicated tools such as LeanKit, Swift Kanban, Kanbanize, Kanban Tool, and Target Process, still lack many features to support aspects of our training. The inclusion of Monte Carlo simulation is a step forward but much of the risk management, sequencing and scheduling, aspects we teach in our classes is still not supported by even the best tools. So, we are still reliant on people taking training and actually implementing what they have learned manually.
For all the good things applying the use of Kanban to creative and knowledge work, what problems remain that Kanban has not been able to address?
I think it is important not to get sucked into solving all the World’s problems with a single method to rule them all! We’ve seen several case studies that successful synthesize Lean Startup with Kanban. We’ve documented a couple of these and they are available as downloads from our web site. We like to talk about making a business “fit for purpose” has both a product or service component and a service delivery component. Lean Startup is about making the product or service “fitter for purpose” (sorry to use British English but American is incapable of expressing this concept in an adequate fashion) while Kanban is about making the service delivery “fitter for purpose.” Together they insure the resilience of a business.
The future direction of my work is to explore this concept of resilient businesses – business that can survive and thrive in fast changing conditions and against the fickle, uncertain demands of a fluid customer base. Stephen Parry used the term “Sense and Respond” as the title of his book on Lean for service delivery. I like that term. Kanban has primarily been about responding – about adapting quickly to a changing external environment. I’d like it also to develop to better cover the concept of “sensing” changes in the market and what represent the fitness criteria for survival.
In all the real world examples that I’m aware of, where a business has sensed that it was no longer “fit for purpose” and has changed its service delivery in order to fix this, the sensing only happened when sales or market share suffered a significant decline. You can’t write guidance based on such examples. Guidance has to be “safe to fail.” So we need a sensing mechanism that is “safe to fail” and doesn’t put businesses or their people at risk when trying to validate existing fitness criteria or establish new replacement criteria.
If we can nail this down then I believe we’ve moved well beyond Toyota and we have a resilience solution for the complex creative and knowledge worker businesses of the 21st Century. It would not surprise me if the first enterprise scale adopter of such a method is Chinese and that the “Toyota” of this century will be a Chinese company mostly making software.
If an audience member wishes to learn more about applying the use of Kanban to creative and knowledge work, where do you suggest she begin?
I would avoid the wikipedia entry on the topic. I don’t know who wrote that stuff but it should be avoided. It seems a couple of minor training/consulting firms in North America are fighting a small war over the content of the wikipedia page. It’s mostly self-serving content that doesn’t accurately reflect the real history, the definition of Kanban or what we actually do.
The edu.leankanban.com site is always a good place to look for training and case studies and is likely to expand into a repository of definitive material. The entire archive of videos is accessible via our community site limitedwipsociety.org. For those who wish to read then Mike Burrows’ new book, Kanban from the Inside, includes most of our latest material. My own book, Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business, is still widely regarded as very accessible and we know many people who managed successful implementations simply by reading it. The text if 5 years old and a few of the details need updating in a 2nd edition.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience?
For an audience that is perhaps more familiar with manufacturing, supply chains and industrial engineering, the best takeaway is to realize that Kanban for knowledge work required a lot of adaptation. The modeling of workflow focuses on activities that generate information or knowledge and is extracted from the Lean Product Development body of knowledge. So the Gemba Walk approach isn’t used in knowledge work. Also the spreads of variation in task durations, lead times, and delivery rates, often exhibit a 2x above and below the mean spread. Assignable cause variations are generally lost in the noise of the chance cause variation (we prefer Shewhart’s nomenclature to Deming’s).
As a result, other adjustments have had to be made. Risk assessment is a vital part of Kanban, and kanban systems must offer multiple classes of service that vary the queuing discipline of the work, and capacity allocations for items of different risks. While this isn’t unheard of in industrial implementations, it is essential in knowledge work implementations. It is vitally important that anyone with an industrial engineering background doesn’t simply attempt to analogously map what they know from the physical world into the virtual world.
Thanks for giving me this opportunity Pete! I really appreciate the opportunity to share what I’ve been doing with your audience.
About David J. Anderson
David Anderson is a thought leader in managing effective teams. He leads a consulting, training and publishing and event planning business dedicated to developing, promoting and implementing sustainable evolutionary approaches for management of knowledge workers. He has 30+ years experience in the high technology industry starting with computer games in the early 1980’s. He has led software teams delivering superior productivity and quality using innovative agile methods at large companies such as Sprint and Motorola. David is the pioneer of the Kanban Method an approach to evolutionary to improvement, and the Modern Management Framework, a system of management for modern businesses operating in complex environments. David is also Chairman of the Board of Lean Kanban, Inc, a company that operates LeanKanban University and Lean Kanban Conferences — a business dedicated to assuring quality of training in The Kanban Method and the Modern Management Framework.
David is the author of three books, Kanban Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business; Lessons in Agile Management: On the Road to Kanban, and Agile Management for Software Engineering Applying the Theory of Constraints for Business Results.
Follow David on Twitter at @djaa_dja
View more Leadership Interviews below: