Kanban in the public sector
When you think of organisations in the public sector, what comes to mind first? Countless, unchanging processes, a great deal of slowness and a low willingness to change? Or do you think of flat hierarchies, lean processes and flexible working? Most people certainly think of rigid, heavyweight organisations. I work as a Kanban coach in the largest public transport company in Germany and currently support 7 teams together with a colleague. And I have made the experience that agile methods can also change things for the better in the public sector.
Word of mouth is the best advertisement
In fact, not many organisations in the public sector are known for their agile work. But things are changing. Little by little, organisations are trying to change, to renew themselves from within. Often these are small steps that are not easily recognised by everyone. At my employer there is a demand for agile coaching. More and more areas want to use methods from Kanban. On the one hand, this is a compliment for my colleague and me, but on the other hand it proves the effect that agile methods can have. We hardly advertise our services and are not being asked to do so by our managers. We receive enquiries almost exclusively because of good word-of-mouth advertising. Little by little the advantages of Kanban are getting around in the company and more and more departments want to understand what Kanban is, how it works and what advantages it offers.
What is Kanban?
You might know Kanban from the Lean Production of Toyota. The focus of Kanban is the constant transparency of materials for a demand-oriented production. In addition, there is a continuous improvement process, which not only makes the Japanese car manufacturer very successful on the market for many years. This continuous improvement process contributes significantly to ensuring high quality results. In an agile context Kanban also addresses the following principles:
- visualisation to make work transparent.
- ” manage the flow “, to optimise the throughput.
- pull-principle, to avoid bottlenecks.
- explicit rules, to achieve healthy interaction.
Kanban is certainly more than just a board, which many often associate with the approach and therefore underestimate it. It is a model of thinking with different practices that promote agile working.
Next to Scrum and Design Thinking, Kanban is the best known agile approach. All three methods are essentially based on the same values such as focus and openness. I often experience discussions in my company about which agile method is the best? In my opinion, it is irrelevant which method is used, because the mindset and the principles according to which work is done are decisive. Only when this is understood can agile approaches develop their effect. Moreover, Kanban and Scrum are practically siblings. Scrum teams always work with a Kanban board. Kanban without a retrospective of Scrum makes no sense, because the change process is not reflected etc.
The biggest difference between Kanban and Scrum is probably the introduction of the method. Scrum is revolutionary with its roles, artefacts and formats. Before using it, roles have to be defined and created. The procedure in the process must be clear. Who meets when with whom for what purpose is also clear. The introduction of Kanban, however, is evolutionary. It starts where the team currently stands and the process as well as the cooperation are successively adapted. In the course of change, new roles and formats can also emerge. This means that over time Kanban and Scrum come closer to each other. In coaching we therefore always pay attention to what the teams need to achieve their goals and which agile methods we can use to support them in doing so. The employees should internalise the agile practices and only use the tools from the agile toolbox that suit them and are beneficial. After all, agility is not an end in itself!
The visualisation in Kanban
We often start with Kanban in our teams by using a board to make the work of the team visible. In a manufactory everyone can see the machined workpiece and therefore knows how far the production process has progressed. In everyday office life, work often takes place in people’s heads. It is important to make work steps transparent in order to control the manufacturing process. For this purpose we like to use Scrum and promote communication with standups. These have the focus on identifying bottlenecks in the workflow, obtaining team support and coordinating for the next cycle – i.e. until the next standup. In short: it is discussed who is going to do which task until the next standup.
In the stand-ups or in separate prioritisation meetings, a manager prioritises the tasks in a way that is visible to everyone, and of course the team members also contribute their views to the prioritisation. Through visualisation on the kanban board, the workload is made visible to everyone and taken into account accordingly. The transparency increases.
Before the use of Kanban in our company, the tasks were always forwarded directly to one person and the mountain of work grew and grew. Now a new assignment – in technical jargon a task – is first entered in the backlog and, if there is a lack of capacity or if there are other priorities, it is left for the time being. At the beginning it requires some courage from the team and the manager to tell the client that his request will not be processed immediately. Of course it is important to communicate the reasons for this transparently to the client in order to increase mutual understanding. A relapse into old times would damage the flow in the team and would create new bottlenecks. “Stop starting, start finishing!” – is an important insight in our organisation. Thanks to Kanban each team is now able to concentrate on a defined set of tasks. And experience shows that it makes no sense to increase this amount of tasks as in the past. The terms Kanban uses for this are not called Work in Progress (WIP) and WIP Limit for nothing. It is obvious that this limit contributes to increased quality, isn’t it?
The benefits of Kanban
I regularly observe that the “aha” moment in the application of Kanban already occurs when all tasks are visualised on the board. Everyone involved is overwhelmed by the amount of tasks. The visualisation ensures that all team members recognise the entire volume of work. First correlations arise and overlaps are also recognised: “You are also working on task A? Me too!” Such moments of surprise diminish over time and duplication of work is avoided. This is a clear advantage for our organisation.
The stand-ups are scheduled for 15 minutes. They offer team members the opportunity to briefly present the progress of their work. At the same time, each participant can openly ask for support, for example if a task is not progressing as expected. This request for support is made possible by a small change of perspective: tasks belong to the team. The team is responsible for the solution of the tasks. Because of this slightly different view of tasks, it is not a personal defeat when an employee asks for support. It is now becoming increasingly common for several team members to work together on individual tasks. It is impressive to see how a team in an organisation chart becomes a team in real work. The joy of moving tasks to the “done” column on the kanban board is now tangible. Successes become visible. They are even celebrated; with a little shout of joy or a high five. This was unthinkable in the past. And why is this so? Because today it is no longer individual people who are controlled, but tasks. So it is actually a mindset that is effective.
The work as an agile coach
As coaches we accompany teams during the introduction of Kanban. The nice thing about Kanban is that you start in the “here and now”, but what is the first concrete step? This question must always be answered with a view to the concrete team. Most of the time the employees have no experience with Kanban, so we try to teach them meaningful agile practices. In our case it has proven to be a good idea to provide teams with knowledge in individual sessions (e.g. “How to write good work packages?”) and then agree on what of this knowledge is suitable for the team and its members and how it can be implemented in the next 4 weeks. After 4 weeks we look back together at the change, share knowledge and discuss measures for the next 4 weeks.
Our retrospectives often reveal aspects that have a negative influence on the team’s performance. Together with the team we try to address these influences step by step. It is important that the employees discover the problems themselves and that we as coaches support them methodically. This creates a continuous improvement process in which teams constantly reflect and learn. One team came up with the idea of using a second stand-up in order to be able to react faster to unwanted disturbing factors or impediments and not to leave anyone alone with their problem. For me this is proof that our organisation is alive and in no way sluggish or stagnant.
Ideally our coaching is finite. After we have ensured a transfer of knowledge and methodically supported teams in their work, our goal is that each team works continuously on its improvement without our intervention. Kanban should become like a second skin for the team. In the stand-ups, bottlenecks have to be recognised and eliminated, prioritisation processes have to be run through without our help, etc. We have already retired from a first team, as this team has reached a level of cooperation and organisation that suits the team well. Of course, we would be happy to be at the disposal of this team, should they “pull” us again, e.g. for the moderation of a retrospective.
In my view, our success with Kanban shows that public sector organisations are also changing internally. More and more sectors are prepared to take new paths. The colleagues in the teams we work with are motivated and open. They want to identify and eliminate weaknesses in their daily work together. They want to improve performance and speed in the team.
And they want to continuously improve the way they work. A team member recently said to me: “We currently have 2 people less available. Without Kanban it would have been chaotic and we would not have been able to control the situation”. Could there be a better compliment?
My special thanks go to the two trainers Samir Keck and Anne Kliebisch from Leadership³ for the excellent training “Kanban – Train the Trainer”. If you want to understand the thinking model behind agility and Kanban and want to use the individual agile tools, you are in good hands with these two. Without this interactive training I would not have been able to carry out my task in this quality.
Manuel Wegener worked for several years in classical project management for sales innovations before he began to deal intensively with agility in 2017. After his training as a Kanban trainer, he has been working as a coach for various teams since the beginning of 2018. His goal is to make the work of the teams controllable, to sharpen the customer focus and to continuously develop the teams. Furthermore, he also coordinates the agile transformation in the company.