Putting the ‘Lean’ into Agile – What Can We Learn from Kanban?

There seems to be a growing amount of discussion around the Kanban approach to software development.  For those of you who, like me, had never heard of Kanban, it has its roots in Japanese lean manufacturing concepts.  I read a great article titled “Kanban Development Oversimplified” by Jeff Patton.  If you are interested in the Kanban way to organize your development then give this a quick read – it is well written and starts off with a good look at the origins of the Agile methodology. 

From my perspective, having now done a little research into Kanban, the approach is very similar to something I practiced back in 2002 while looking after storage products for BMC Software.  In my opinion, Kanban is a great process for software product companies who want to drive efficiency across their product delivery process.  However, it is not ideal for corporate IT shops who are working on improving their application development processes and better alignment with the business.

Even though I’m an Agilista at heart, I believe we can learn from the Kanban approach, however, there are some things that just don’t seem like a good practice.  For example:

  • Lack of Iteration: Kanban doesn’t include an iterative approach – which I feel is one of the key Agile tenets that delivers real benefit.  It allows us to continuously align with the business and deliver exactly what the business wants – regardless of the set of requirements we started with.  Invaluable in my opinion.
  • No commitment to deliver: Without iteration and time boxed sprints you never have the opportunity to set expectations and then meet them – ‘deliver early and often’ as we like to say.  This is critical to drive business trust and Agile adoption.
  • Writing Larger Stories:  Kanban proposes writing larger stories around the concept of a minimal marketing feature (MMF).  Once again, a concept that makes a lot of sense for software product companies in the commercial software world.  In my experience, writing larger stories results in longer development cycles for a feature, resulting in the opportunity to wander off the path before a user sees what you have done.  Historically we have never managed to get  the MMFs correctly defined, which results in rework and extra costs.  The approach of developing some of the functionality and then getting feedback is a hallmark of Agile and leads to better business alignment by allowing the team to react to change from the business.  This works better with smaller, role based stories.

Even with these shortcomings, Kanban’s lean manufacturing approach is interesting as it should really help a team identify process bottlenecks, and I suspect could be applied in a more Agile manner of development.

I am sure you all will have lots more comparisons and thoughts on how Kanban could make your Agile approach better. Let us know what you think!

About the author

Mike Jones

Mike is a professed 'hater' of complexity. He has been in the IT industry since the mid 80's where he learned his technical skills at EDS and Texas Instruments. He believes there is a simpler way for IT professionals to deliver business value that requires a pragmatic mix of agile methods and application development tools.


Robert Neri

Hey Mike, you hit the nail on the head…. but I would caution on stating that the items you mentioned as shortcomings. The whole idea behind kanban is JIT from manufacturing perspective so we should not expect it to have these agile characteristics. This is where the ’lean’ comes to play; where smaller stories make a big difference so that things get delivered in manageable terms, iteratively, and to expectations. On the other hand, kanban allows workers to deliver bigger chunks of the product without the constraints or limitations of a timebox. Sometimes with agile we struggle with delivering a feature that may be too large of the ideal sprint timebox but partial delivery of the feature does not make sense. Lots of pros and cons; best to use what fits the project. Or if we can leverage the strengths of both, that would be even better. When introducing agile to large organizations, one great impediment is support organization SLAs. I’m sure kanban can help streamline their processes which will allow them to support agile projects in an agile way.
Just my 2 cents…

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