Can’tBan… Adventures with Kanban

Comic about Agile Programming

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We started using Kanban in our shop about six months ago. This in of itself is interesting considering we are nominally an ITIL shop and the underlying philosophies of ITIL and Kanban seem diametrically opposed. Kanban, at least from my cursory experience is focused on speeding up the flow of work, identifying bottlenecks and meeting customers’ requirements more responsively. It is all about reducing “cycle time”, that is the time it takes to move a unit of work through to completion. ITIL is all about slowing the flow of work down and adding rigor and business oversight into IT processes. A side effect of this is that the cycle time increases.

If you are not familiar with Kanban the idea is simple. Projects get decomposed into discrete tasks, tasks get pulled through the system from initiation to finish and each stage of the project is represented by a queue. Queues’ have work in progress (WIP) limits which means only so many task can be in a single queue at the same time. The backlog is where everything you want to get done sits before you actually start working on it. DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?

As I am sure the one reader of my blog knows, I simultaneously struggle with time management and I am also fascinated by it. What do I think about Kanban? I have mixed feelings.

The Good

  • Kanban is very visual. I like visual things – walk me through your application’s architecture over the phone and I have no idea what you have just told me five minutes later. Show me a diagram and I will get it. This appeal of course is personal and will vary widely depending on the individual.
  • Work in progress (WIP) limits! These are a fantastic concept. The idea that your team can only process so much work in a given unit of time and that constantly context switching between tasks has an associated cost is obvious to those in the trenches but not so much to those higher powers that exist beyond the Reality Impermeability Layer of upper management. If you literally show them there is not enough room in the execution queue for another task they will start to get it. All of sudden you and your leadership can start asking the real questions… why is task A being worked on before task Z? Do you need more resources to complete all the given tasks? Maybe task C can wait awhile? Why is task G moving so slowly? Why are we bottlenecked at this phase?
  • Priorities are made explicit. If I ever have doubt about what I am expected to be working on I can just check the execution queue. If my manager wants me to work on another task that is outside the execution queue, then we can have a discussion about whether or not to bump something back or hold the current “oh hey, can you take care of this right now?” task in the backlog. I cannot understate how awesome this. It makes the cost of context switching visible, keeps my tactical work aligned with my manager’s strategic goals, and makes us think about what tasks matter most and in what order they should get done. This is so much better than the weekly meeting, where more and more tasks get dumped into some nebulous to-do list that my team struggles through while leadership wonders why the “Pet Project of the Month” isn’t finished yet.

The Interesting

  • The scope of work that you set as a singular “task” is really important. If a single task is too large then it doesn’t accurately map to the work being done on a day-to-day basis and you lose out on Kanban’s ability to bring bottlenecks and patterns to the surface where they can be dealt with. If the tasks are to small then you end up spending too much time in the “meta-analysis” of figuring out what task is where instead of actually accomplishing things.
  • The type of work you decide to count as a Kanban task also has a huge effect on how your Kanban actually “runs”. Do you track break/fix, maintenance tasks, meetings, projects, all of the above? I think this really depends on how your team works and what they work on so there is no hard or fast answer here.
  • Some team members are more equal than others. We set our WIP limit to Number of Team Members * 2… the idea being that two to three tasks is about all a single person can really focus on and still be effective (i.e., “The Rule Of Threes”). Turns out though in practice that 60% of tasks are owned by only 20% team. Huh. I guess that would be called a bottleneck?

The Bad

  • Your queues need to actually be meaningful. Just having separate queues named “Initiation”, “Documentation”, “Sign-off” only works if you have discrete actions that are expected for the tasks in those queues. In our shop what I have found is only one queue matters: the execution queue. We have other queues but since they do not have requirements and WIP limits attached to them they are essentially just to-do lists. If a task goes into the Documentation queue, then you better damn well document your system before you move the task along. What we have is essentially a one queue Kanban system with a single WIP limit. If we restructured our Kanban process and truly pulled a task through each queue from beginning to finish I think we would see much more utility.
  • Flow vs. non-flow. An interesting side of effect of not having strong queue requirements is that tasks don’t really “flow”. For example: We are singularly focused on the execution queue and so every time I finish a task it gets moved onto the documentation queue where it piles up with all the other stuff I never documented. Now instead of backing off and making time for our team to document before pulling more work into the system I re-focus on whatever task just got promoted into the execution queue. Maybe this is why our documentation sucks so much? What this should tell us is 1) We have too many items in the documentation queue for new work, 2) the documentation queue needs a smaller WIP limit, 3) we need to make the hard decision to put off work until documentation is done if we actually want documentation and 4) documentation is work and work takes time. If we never give staff the time to document then we will end up with no documentation. I don’t necessarily thing everything needs to be pulled through each queue. Break/Fix work is often simple, ephemeral and if your ticket system doesn’t suck ,self-documenting. You could handle these types of tasks with a standalone queue.
  • Queues should have time-limits. You only have one of two states regarding a given unit of work, you are either actively working on it or you are not. Kanban should have the same relationship with tasks in a given queue. If a task has sat in the planning queue for a week without any actual planning occurring then it should be removed. Either the next queue is full (bottleneck), the planning queue is full (bottleneck/WIP limit to high) or your team is not working on your Kanban tasks (other larger systemic problems). Aggressively “reset” tasks by sending them to the backlog if no work is being performed on them and enforce your queue requirements otherwise all you have done is create six different “to-do-whenever-we-have-spare-time-which-is-never-lists” that just collect tasks.
  • Our implementation of Kanban does not work as a time management tool because we only track “project” work. Accordingly very little of my time is actually spent on the Kanban tasks since I am also doing break/fix, escalations, monitoring and preventive maintenance. This really detracts from the overall benefit of managing priorities, making then explicit and limiting context switching since our Kanban board only represents at best 25% of my team’s work.

In conclusion there are some things I really like about Kanban and with some tweaks I think our implementation could have a lot of utility. I am not convinced it will mix well with our weird combination of ITIL processes but no real help desk (see: Who Needs Tickets Anyway? and Those are Rookie Numbers according to r/sysadmin). We are getting value out of Kanban but it needs some real changes before it becomes just one more process of vague effectiveness.

It will be interesting to see where we are in another six months.

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice.

One thought on “Can’tBan… Adventures with Kanban

  1. rand42

    Curious how your thoughts on Kanban boards for IT staff have changed in the seven months since you wrote this post. Any suggestions on how to make them more useful for sysadmins?

    I also work on a sysadmin team that uses a Kanban board to track “project work” but not break/fix/other tasks. We have multiple projects going on but all the cards are just mixed into the same board.

    I feel like I am missing something important on how to make Kanban work better for us. Maybe I just need to see what a working Kanban setup for a sysadmin Tier3 team looks like.

    To be honest, I think we are mainly using Kanban cards to track completed project tasks so our manager can more easily report them up the chain. I don’t know if it is actually helping me make better use of my time.

    Does your team do daily standups? Mine does a weekly team meeting and I don’t think its is super useful for troubleshooting or reporting (although it is useful for team cohesion and announcements). Either I was able to fix the problem I had earlier that week myself or I will forget to ask the team about it by the time the weekly meeting comes around. Since we only meet once a week status updates also take much longer because there is a week’s worth of stuff to report on.

    I just feel like “there’s got to be a better way!”

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