Kanban: A Tool for Distributed Teams Tries to Overcome Endemic Outsourcing Disconnects

The obvious goal of any outsourced operation is that the provider is a seamless extension of the company they serve.  That ideal is easy to expound but difficult …

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The obvious goal of any outsourced operation is that the provider is a seamless extension of the company they serve.  That ideal is easy to expound but difficult to achieve; if you are not familiar with Kanban, and its capacity to positively impact how knowledge work is carried out, you may be leaving a lot on the table.

Kanban is finding its way into the relationships between buyers and providers as outsourced teams are ever more integrated with base teams; people are inventing ways to exchange information.  Distributed teams are sharing common boards, or they can see each other’s boards.  It vastly diminishes those wasteful and expensive conversations centered around ‘what are you doing right now, how did you get that result, what are you working on next, etc.’ as well as creates a shared story [for distributed teams] and reduces straying off path,” says Jim Benson, CEO of Modus Cooperandi, a Kanban consultancy company that declares “If you can’t see it, you can’t improve it,” in reference to the central-visual component of Kanban boards.

What is Kaban?

Kanban is a visual method to sequence and measure whatever work needs to be done.  The work is sequenced on a Kanban board that makes real-time information available to everybody with the idea that that advantage creates more collaborative spaces more often.

“Knowledge workers use their brains and thus their productivity is highly affected by mood.  Kanban [because it is visually easy to see what everybody else is working on] creates spaces where one employee can stop by another employee’s desk and resolve in a few minutes what may have taken a more isolated employee 4-5 hours to figure out on their own.  The employee that helped returns to their desk feeling good and works better too,” remarks Benson.

Kanban (which literally translates to signboard) is a central component of the Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing system Toyota pioneered where end customer demand controls the rate of production and its corresponding processes.

According to Benson, a basic Kanban board shows some of the following:

  • Who is working on what and what is coming up, backlog
  • Options for upcoming work and where the bottle necks are
  • Psychometrics (how the team feels) and the status of any task
  • Task completion times and details of task handoffs
  • Tracking of defects and bugs and feature development

And informs the following:

  • Lead time and cycle time so over time estimates can be refined
  • Prioritization of what needs to be optimized
  • Identification of training opportunities; who is handling what tickets
  • Complexity level of tasks; which tasks are continually under/overestimated
  • Team mood

Like Agile, Kanban employs frequent meetings (Stand-ups) to shrink feedback loops for not just software development but all lines of knowledge products. Because of Kanban’s highly visual nature, the meetings achieve high substance too.

“Some of the frequent meetings in the other lean methodologies just end up being all status updates; boring and not that productive.  Since the Kanban board already informs status, instead a team member can voice what help they might need to provide value that day; stand-ups can be used for tactical purposes,” adds Benson.

Cynefin Model, Chaotic to Simple and Kanban

Benson explained that when we outsource work we have a natural tendency to believe that it is easier than it is, and similarly the providers who take it on can underestimate the work.  With the ever increasing complexity of outsourcing relationships we recently wrote about how the long and prescriptive Request For Proposal (RFP) is a poor fit for collaborative-innovative outsourcing arrangements.

Our principle interviewee, Tom Young, a partner at Information Services Group (ISG) said,  “There is a tendency when a complex 2,000 page RFP is written with a meticulous SLA [Service Leven Agreement] that it will run the relationship when it in fact never replaces governance.”

That governance is highly varied, based on the activity and extremely collaborative, and improvisational depending on the complexity of the task.  A good way to measure weather an outsourced activity needs Kanban techniques is by measuring where it falls in relation to the Cynefin Model, created by academic David J. Snowden and illuminated (video) in the context of outsourcing by Benson.

The Cynefin Model “helps leaders determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices,” wrote Snowden, the model’s creator, in the Harvard Business Review.  An outsourced activity can be understood in the context of the model as Simple, Complicated, Complex, or Chaotic.  Simple and even Complicated activities “assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are perceptible, and right answers can be determined based on the facts,” according to the author.

A Simple activity could be a low-level BPO process or call center function while a Complicated activity might be an inventory database where a speck is given and the client receives the deliverable that is a version of what s/he imagined, but there was some interpretation.  A Complex or Chaotic activity has “…no immediately apparent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns,” states Snowden.

To use Snowden’s terms, an outsourced activity is Simple or Complicated and falls into the realm of the “ordered world” which can be treated with “fact-based management,” or the outsourced activity is Complex or Chaotic and part of the “unordered world,” thus it must be tackled with “pattern-based management,” that emerges as the activity is carried out.

An outsourced activity may be a mix of Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic, however, if the activity to be outsourced is more towards Complex and Chaotic the necessary real time interaction between buyer and provider can be facilitated by Kanban.

“When I started using it I literally could not believe how well it was working.  And then when I started talking to others using it in different occupations we just kept finding that it works,” notes Benson.  “Yes it is a work management tool, but really it is like a laboratory.  When a process is not working correctly you can hypothesize, set up a Kanban board test, measure, and achieve continual improvement.”

Some other lean methodologies try to prescribe the team size, but Benson says Kanbancan even work for larger teams.  “It is a misperception of Agile that 8 people are magic for team size, one of the first major Kanban projects involved a 50 person team for a large SAP roll out. The entire team using the same Kanban board fundamentally changed the nature of how information was shared.”

A Few Kanban Tools

  • Lean Kit Kanban
  • Kanbanery
  • Kanban Flow
  • Swift Kanban

Are you using Kanban in your global services engagement? Let us know for a follow-up article Jon@Nextcoastmedia.com