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August 07, 2018

Kanban in Action: The Workshop

3 mins read

As the two Kanban Trainers at Excella, Mark Grove and I think a lot about Kanban and how to spread knowledge of it. We’ve recently had a lot of success with a workshop we call “Kanban in Action.” We’ve presented it at meetups, the AgileDC Conference, and Lean Kanban North America. In August, we’ll be doing it again at Agile2018.

Observing, Creating, Leading Flow

The workshop centers on flow, but unlike practical simulations that walk people through how it feels to work in a Kanban system, we bring people together to talk about their experiences and share their knowledge. We create a collaborative learning space, anchored on a few simple constraints. Depending on which version of the workshop we’re running, those constraints might be a set of sample Kanban boards, a brief description of a challenging situation, or some sample metrics, such as lead time histograms and cumulative flow diagrams.

We use the constraints as focal points. They provide a shared context. As the participants review the Kanban board or read the situation, they bring their knowledge and experience to that context. We provide a few minutes for everyone to share ideas and collaborate at their tables. Then we facilitate a large group discussion about what they’ve observed, what hypotheses they’ve formulated, and what actions they would take.

Questions are often a common denominator; everyone recognizes they need to learn more—to gain more context—to really be helpful in our hypothetical situations. The questions are very illuminating. We explore what to ask, how to phrase the questions, and the assumptions behind them. Participants learn a great deal about the potential complexity of modeling work with Kanban systems and the challenges of helping teams improve. They often walk away with new, practical ideas about how to engage with their teams.

The Power of Kanban

We regularly tweak and adjust the workshop based on feedback and our experiences. So far, the majority of feedback has been very positive. One attendee at Lean Kanban North America called it “the most valuable” session of the whole week. At a prior session, our exercises were described as an “Agile escape room.” Mark and I are very pleased that we’ve been able to create such positive experiences.

I think there are two reasons the workshop has been received so well. Both reflect the nature of Kanban. The first is that we use relatively simple constraints. Much of the power of Kanban comes from visualizing work and limiting work in progress; these simple constraints foster greater collaboration and more effectiveness with teams. We do the same thing, but with a brief description or visualization.

The second thing we do is draw out the knowledge and skill of the participants in the workshop. We try to focus on holding the space and allowing people to learn from each other. We ask questions and suggest ideas to keep the dialog moving but we avoid implying that our thoughts are the “correct” answer. Good Kanban systems provoke the same kind of spirit, allowing the best ideas to emerge from the collective experience of the team. That’s leadership, from every level.

Please Join Us

If you are interested in learning more about Kanban system and how to coach teams using them, then I highly encourage you to attend one of our “Kanban in Action” sessions. Look for us at meetups throughout the greater DC region.

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