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May 25, 2018

Inspecting and Adapting for Continuous Improvement

5 mins read

In my last post, I described how we started with Kanban at Silverline to help them become a more agile marketing firm. Early on, we kept the focus on mapping their system, visualizing the work, and agreeing on explicit policies (think: rules of the road) that would drive them towards achieving results.

After giving the team a few weeks to acclimate and create the necessary and comfortable level of transparency, it was time to make a few adjustments and draw in the remaining fundamentals of Kanban, this time to help us inspect and adapt.

Feedback Loops

Like any team, as Silverline went about its business they increased their skills and gained new insights into their clients and their work. With proper inspection, they used this new knowledge to fine tune things and improve their ability to deliver real value. Rinse and repeat. This cycle is called a feedback loop, and in agile we keep these as short as possible to maximize fast learning.

The Kanban board is a terrific way to radiate information in a feedback loop, and recurring meetings serve as common endpoints. Here are a few examples of such meetings, as well as some of the improvements we made over time:

Set Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limits

Marketing teams like Silverline continuously balance demands from several clients, with each client believing that their work is the priority. It is tempting to pull everything into the system and start on it all at once, but this rarely works in anyone’s best interest. Enter Work-in-Progress (WIP) limits.

WIP limits represent capacity constraints that restrict volume of work brought into the system at a given time. A board is not really Kanban without setting clear limits. At Silverline, we used WIP limits to influence more effective approaches to selecting and completing work, such as:

  • Better prioritization of what needed to be done sooner and what could wait
  • Breaking down work into smaller sizes to get more done faster
  • Pulling work through the system only when team members were ready
  • Not taking on too much at once, and instead focusing on finishing what was started

Some coaches develop complicated formulas for determining their starting WIP limits. We decided to keep things simple! The team settled on a limit of 2 items per person for each lane. After a few weeks of observation, they agreed that this was high and dropped it down to 1.5 per person, summed and rounded up, which proved more effective.

WIP limits help identify inefficiencies. As work moves across the board, the team inevitably bumps against the limits and bottlenecks are created. When this happened at Silverline, the team swarmed to the problem and worked together to clear it out. Once the dust settled, they’d decided what, if anything, could be done to prevent it from happening again.

Manage the flow of work

The flow of work for a team is monitored using the board and the metrics collected as cards move across it. Here are a few:

  • Lead Time: The perceived amount of time that a customer spends waiting for something.
  • Cycle Time: The time from when the team starts the work to when they finish it.
  • Throughput: Work that the team completes in a recurring period, such as cards per week.

What follows are examples of Silverline metrics for a 4-week period in Q3 2017:

In case the above is hard to translate: there were plenty of positive trends, and a few things trending the wrong way. In Kanban, we monitor trends over individual data points.

Remember that these are predictability metrics designed to help the team manage flow and find ways to improve. They’re more valuable when used this way, and not as primary measures of progress or productivity. The priority at Silverline is always to satisfy their clients through real value delivery. Whatever your mission or vision, measure to that, and let the teams use these metrics to get there.

So now that we have almost everything in place, it’s time to talk about the most important part of Kanban: continuous change for better.

Evolve Incrementally

Find the most important opportunity or the biggest constraint and go after it until, whatever it is, it no longer holds the title. Then go after the next thing.

Often our focus at Silverline was improving value delivery, flow, and predictability, but not always. Sometimes we needed to step back from the work and look at challenges within the team. Retrospectives are a fantastic time to reflect, inspect, and adapt. The Silverline group surfaced several improvements in just a few months, such as:

  • Refining the workflow, WIP limits, and team agreements
  • Updating HR policies
  • Splitting into two teams when the need surfaced
  • Providing better support for remote workers

Uncovering these opportunities, and more importantly turning them into action, required leadership at all levels of Silverline. Laura is an amazing woman, but she couldn’t do it on her own. Whoever the “boss” is for any team or organization, they need to truly empower their people and create the right environment for these kinds of powerful conversations to thrive.

Remember, improvement is a forever goal.

Coming up next:

In my final joint post with the Silverline team, they’ll share thoughts on how embracing agile helped them come together to deliver better value faster for their clients, and why the journey was worth it, even for a company outside of software development or IT. From there, I’ll describe how we kept pointing everything we did back to the agile mindset, the values and principles and infinite number of practices, so that we never took our eyes off why we started the journey in the first place!

Read More

This is the sixth post in the ‘Business Agility: A Marketing Agency’s Transformation’ series.

Post 1: How Saying Yes to Agile Changed Our Agency!

Post 2: Expanding Agile Across Your Business.

Post 3: Finding the Right Sherpa: Why an Agile Coach is Necessary for Success.

Post 4: Starting at Silverline: Building the Foundations of an Agile Marketing Team.

Post 5: Reflecting on our Agile Journey: Overcoming Challenges and Celebrating Success.

Post 6: Inspecting and Adapting for Continuous Improvement

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