The Kanban Board is a Mirror

When I hear the expression “we need to change our Kanban board” - it happens quite often -, I think about the analogy between a mirror and a Kanban board: a mirror reflects what’s in front of it and a Kanban board reflects the process the organisation is following. We rarely put make-up on the mirror, or try to comb it. When we want to change the reflection, we change ourselves and check the result in the mirror. We should do the same with the Kanban board. Following the analogy, it doesn’t matter if we add a new lane or column to the board, or change the WIP limit. Nothing will change, except the reflection won’t be clear any more: it is like looking into a dirty or an old mirror. So don’t start your change by redesigning your Kanban board. Do a value stream mapping to see the status quo, find the desired outcome, and update your process. If you do this right, your Kanban board will show your state.

For the sake of the example, let’s say that you want to add a Review column between User Experience Design and Implementation. The first question you should ask your team is why the sudden process change? There are two cases: there has already been an informal review between UX and Implementation, but it is not visualized. Or, there is a need to have one. If it is the first case, then the change on the board is justified and you should do it. If it is the second case, you may want to find out the root cause of the change, how it works now, what are the pros and cons of the change, and how to make it happen. In other words, you do a process change first and not a visualisation change.

The review won’t just happen because it has a column on the board. A column alone doesn’t have a purpose, it needs a process step to support it. It is easy to let work items station there for ever or to cut corners and simply skip the column - the mirror becomes dirty, and you won’t see clearly any more what is happening. If you do a value stream mapping you’ll know why and how to do that review, who can do it, and what you expect from it. At this point it is clear to everybody what is going on and more importantly, why. Finally, that process step will have a purpose that you can visualise and use.

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