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8 Critical Red Flags Your Kanban Adoption Is Incomplete

September 6, 2023

8 Critical Red Flags Your Kanban Adoption Is Incomplete


In the context of agile teams and Kanban adoption, I'm reminded of 'The Princess Bride,' a classic film where Vizzini frequently exclaims 'Inconceivable!' Inigo Montoya famously retorts, 'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.'

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Much like Vizzini's misuse of the word 'Inconceivable,' many teams often misunderstand or misuse terms like 'Kanban,' 'Scrum,' and 'Agile.' When someone enthusiastically claims, 'We're doing Kanban!' but their actions suggest otherwise, it triggers my own 'Inigo Montoya moment.' This is a red flag that indicates incomplete or misunderstood Kanban adoption. Don't worry; in this article, we delve into common red flags and how to improve.

We've previously addressed misconceptions about Agile and Scrum. For now, our focus remains on understanding and applying Kanban.

Red Flags of Incomplete Kanban Adoption

Before diving into the key practices and metrics that make Kanban effective, let's first explore some telltale signs that indicate Kanban adoption isn't fully embraced within a team:

  1. Board without Policies: A board without Work In Progress (WIP) limits or explicit policies isn't leveraging Kanban's power. WIP limits create a smoother flow and visualize work balance.
  2. Ignored or Unused Metrics: Kanban goes beyond task visualization. Metrics like Cycle Time and Throughput provide transparency and form a basis for improvement.
  3. Neglected Key Charts: Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFD) and Cycle Time Scatterplots aren't mere decorations. They offer insights into workflow and guide improvement discussions.
  4. Not Prioritizing High Priority Items: Kanban values focusing on value. Teams should prioritize high-value work and consider swarming on tasks for faster completion.
  5. Queued Work Mismanagement: Too many tasks waiting, especially in testing, signals batching and inefficiency.
  6. Stalled Work Items: Items lingering without progress reveal bottlenecks.
  7. Infrequent Flow Discussions: Regular discussions about flow are vital. Stagnant items without discussions hinder improvement.
  8. Ignoring Feedback Loops: Kanban's philosophy emphasizes continuous improvement through feedback loops. Ignoring feedback hampers the process.

8 Red Flags Your Kanban Adoption Is Incomplete

Discovering Kanban's Fundamental Principles

To truly embrace the essence of Kanban, it's pivotal to grasp and apply its foundational principles. These principles not only serve as the cornerstone for the advanced practices and key metrics we'll explore later but also guide the overarching philosophy behind Kanban.

Kanban Core Practices:

Now that we've touched on why the basic principles of Kanban are such a big deal, let's get into the nitty-gritty—the core practices that make Kanban really click and help your team flow more smoothly.

  • Visualizing the Workflow: Use visual boards or digital tools to clarify your workflow stages. This transparency enhances team understanding and allows for easy tracking of work items. For insight into one effective method of workflow visualization, see our blog post on value stream mapping.
  • Limiting Work in Progress (WIP): Maintain a balanced flow by setting WIP limits for each workflow stage. This practice prevents overburdening the team and encourages a steady, manageable pace of work.
  • Managing Flow: Monitor and manage the flow of work items across stages to minimize bottlenecks and delays. Regularly assessing the flow ensures a consistent and smooth progression of tasks.
  • Inspecting and Adapting: Continuously evaluate your workflow, policies, and practices. Embrace a culture of learning by seeking improvements based on data and feedback. Flexibility and adaptation are key to optimizing your Kanban process.

For those eager to master these practices, our Kanban course offers an immersive learning experience that guides you through practical applications and real-world scenarios.

Key Kanban Metrics

Foundational practices pave the way, and key metrics provide actionable insights:

  • Work in Progress (WIP): Transparently track work started but not finished, reflecting progress and flow improvement.
  • Cycle Time: Measure time from work item start to finish.
  • Work Item Age: Measure time from work item start to the current time (applies to items in progress).
  • Throughput: Measure completed work items per unit of time.

Additionally, Service Level Expectations (SLEs) offer insights into completion times. While not primary, SLEs aid workflow inspection and adaptation.

Insights through Kanban Charts

Beyond practices and key metrics, there are pivotal charts that serve as visual aids for improved transparency and deeper insights into your workflow.

  • Cycle Time Scatterplot: Visualizes task duration and variability, aiding in identifying patterns and outliers.
  • Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD): Displays work volume across stages, pinpointing bottlenecks and accumulation points.
  • Throughput Run Chart: Plots completed items over time, tracking productivity trends.
  • Work Item Age Chart: Highlights time spent by tasks in the workflow, aiding in identifying areas of delay.

When you get the hang of these charts, you'll start seeing your workflow in a whole new light. You'll spot where you can do better and make smarter choices that really line up with what Kanban is all about

Unleashing the Power of Kanban

By avoiding the common pitfalls mentioned earlier and embracing Kanban wholeheartedly, you unlock substantial advantages for your team. These benefits range from smoother workflows to data-driven decision-making. Let's delve into what you stand to gain

  • Enhanced Flow and Reduced Delays: Attain smoother workflows for quicker delivery.
  • Data-Driven Decision Making: Optimize processes through enhanced predictability.
  • Targeted Deliveries: Prioritize maximum value delivery in minimal time.
  • Continuous Improvement: Implement an iterative process for ongoing enhancements.
  • Enhanced Transparency: Foster improved team collaboration and clearer progress tracking.

Interactive Learning with Kanban Simulation

No matter your experience level with Kanban - be it a beginner or seasoned veteran - simulations can offer valuable insights to enhance your understanding.

A top pick for us is the online simulation, TWIG: The WIP Game. This interactive simulation lets you tinker with Kanban flow and witness firsthand how your decisions impact work items. It's a fantastic way to translate theory into practice and grasp how various elements interact in a live workflow.

twig - the online wip game

But don't just stop at online simulations. Physical Kanban games bring something different to the table. One of their strong suits is they require you to calculate metrics and sketch out your own graphs. This hands-on interaction often helps participants gain insights that automated online tools might gloss over.

Here are some top picks for physical Kanban games:

  • GetKanban Board Game: This game focuses on flow, bottlenecks, and how to improve continuously. It's a team experience and a great learning tool.
  • Featureban: Aimed at software teams, this game teaches you how to visualize work and manage flow.
  • TWIG: The WIP Game (Physical Version): Similar to its online version, this physical game is perfect for team workshops.
  • Kanban Pizza Game: As the name suggests, this game simulates a pizza-making process. It's a fun way to grasp concepts like WIP limits and cycle time.

Each of these physical games has unique features to help you understand variables like WIP limits and bottlenecks.

In Summary

In the spirit of 'The Princess Bride,' it's crucial to ensure that we fully understand what we mean when we use terms like 'Kanban,' 'Scrum,' and 'Agile.' Much like Inigo Montoya's famous line, it's worth reexamining our preconceptions and enhancing our understanding through continuous learning and practice.

In this blog, we've dug into the red flags of incomplete Kanban adoption, explored its core practices, and highlighted the metrics that matter. But learning Kanban isn't just about reading; it's about doing. That's why we recommend interactive online simulations like "TWIG: The WIP Game", which lets you experiment and see how your choices affect a live workflow.

For those who crave a deeper dive, physical Kanban games like GetKanban or Featureban offer an alternative way to internalize these principles. Calculating metrics and drawing your own graphs provide a unique learning experience that digital tools often skip over.

If this has piqued your interest and you're keen on going the extra mile to improve your understanding of Kanban, our Professional Scrum with Kanban (PSK) courses could be your next step.

Feel like this blog could help someone else? Don't hesitate to share. Have thoughts or questions? We're all ears—just drop a comment below.


Alex is an experienced Developer, Scrum Master, Agile Coach and trainer at b-agile. With extensive firsthand experience, he firmly believes in the significance of learning from practitioners who have put the theory into practice, enabling them to incorporate valuable insights from both their failures and successes in their application.

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