I sometimes run across teams that say “we tried kanban and it didn’t work”. When I hear this, I’m always genuinely curious and ask for more details about what they’d done and what specifically didn’t work for them.

The single most common reason is that they weren’t doing the second core practice - “Actively manage the items in the workflow”.

Let’s review all of the core practices1

  1. Define and visualize the workflow
  2. Actively manage items in the workflow
  3. Improve the workflow

When Kanban doesn’t work, it’s that “actively managing” step where things have usually fallen apart. Actively managing the items in your workflow means…

  • Collaborating as a group about how we’re going to finish any item that’s already in progress.
  • Identifying items that are taking longer than they should to complete and giving them more attention. Perhaps by comparing their current age against the service level expectation for that item.
  • Actively unblocking items that are blocked and not just noticing that they are blocked.
  • Looking for items piling up in any part of the workflow and getting them moving again.
  • Managing how much work is allowed in progress overall. Note that the fact your WIP is within the limits doesn’t prove that WIP is being managed effectively - the limits may not be set at effective values.

The key here is that we are actively managing the items, not passively watching them move on by and hoping they get done.

When teams say “Kanban didn’t work for us” then in my experience they weren’t doing these things. Instead they were typically…

  • Giving status updates rather than collaborating.
  • Allowing work to pile up.
  • Allowing items to exceed the WIP limits (if there even were WIP limits).
  • Allowing items to stay blocked because it was easier to just start a new item than to figure out how to get the other work unblocked.
  • Not paying any attention to how old an item was.

So if you’re not getting the results you want from Kanban, look here first. This is most likely the piece that isn’t getting done.

That doesn’t mean that the other two core practices aren’t important as well. Not doing them properly will cause all kinds of additional problems. The three practices are designed to complement each other and only doing some without the others will give poor results.

See also: Improving your standup which shows how we incorporate many of these items into the daily standup.

  1. These are the core practices as defined in the Kanban Guide. Kanban University has a different list of six core practices but if you look closely, there is significant overlap between the three here and the six there. For the purposes of this article, we can consider them the same.