3 Kanban myths and realities explained

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I am often told that the grass is greener on the Kanban side of the fence. Teams claim that Kanban is less process-intensive and has fewer roles and ceremonies than Scrum. Enthusiasts also loudly declare how easy it is to complete items without the constraint of a sprint. And, they say, the metrics in Kanban are less rigorous than those used in Scrum.

But the real reason Kanban looks better is because teams are making assumptions—bad assumptions—about Kanban methodology.

Here are three myths about Kanban—and why you shouldn’t believe them.

Kanban has a very strict process—cards are worked in priority order, passing from one status to the next only when the explicit policy for promotion is achieved. It imposes work-in-progress (WIP) limits on each status to ensure work is flowing through the system without creating a traffic jam.

As for roles, Kanban still benefits from product owners, Scrum masters (also called agile coaches), and the development team. Kanban also has a complex set of seven ceremonies (Scrum has four), at different cadences, to ensure that risk and dependency are mitigated.

 In practice, teams move Kanban cards out within a week. A typical Kanban card will spend one to three days within a state, most often moving off the board within a week.

Kanban cards that stay on the board longer create issues for the team as WIP limits are reached and jams occur. Instead, your team should work together to create small cards that can flow through the system with as few jams as possible.

Interpreting velocity and capacity, using them to forecast, and trying to be predictable can be very tricky. Kanban instead focuses on metrics that highlight waste: Lead and cycle time, lead time distribution, and cumulative flow are the favorites.

All the metrics in Kanban require teams to focus on how cards compare to each other, how much time is spent in each state by each card, and which states have the most waste. These metrics are easier to interpret and apply improvements to the process. However, since the team focuses on all cards and states, the rigor is greater than using velocity and capacity.

These three myths are just part of a long list. The goal of Kanban is to identify potential bottlenecks in your process—waste—and fix the process so work can flow at an optimal speed, or throughput.

Kanban embraces continuous delivery and continuous flow. If your team wants to focus on flow, delivery, and speed, then Kanban may be the right shade of green after all.

For more on Kanban myths, don’t miss my talk, “Mythbusters: Kanban Edition,” at Agile + DevOps West, which runs June 7-11, 2021. I’ll be speaking on June 10. 

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