A Leading Indicator–Element #4 of the Kanban

Jim BensonPrimers3 Comments

It seems we’re addicted to metrics.

People believe that if you measure something over time, you’ll see patterns in the data and act on them. The problem is that most metrics are lagging indicators. These are metrics that can tell you why something happened, but they rarely warn of things that are happening or are about to happen.

While lagging metrics are not necessarily bad, it should be fairly apparent that learning of problems after they’ve happened does little to help you avoid them in the first place.

Kanban and Personal Kanban are real-time systems that provide real-time and leading metrics. The board tells you what is happening, as it is happening. Patterns in real-time movements help you predict events in the future. While the board is more than capable of creating great lagging indicators like Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFDs), its real strength lies in showing status in a way that helps avoid missteps and pitfalls.

Let’s take a look at a few design patterns that exemplify this:

Bottleneck in packaging

In this board we see a fairly standard bottleneck. Work is flowing smoothly through verification, when we reach packaging we see a bottleneck made explicit by the backup of tickets. When we arrive at a situation like this, the group or groups doing the work have the opportunity to correct immediately. In this case, fabricators can help in verification or might take some time to improve the shop, we may bring in other verifiers, or whatever corrective action might be necessary. This problem becomes explicit immediately – the moment it happens everyone knows there is a bottleneck that is impeding workflow. There is no need for detailed reports, meetings, or blame – the backup is simply there and  should be addressed.

overloaded team

In this board we see a team with too much work. Their WIP limit is five, and yet they have ten tasks in flight. We also see that people downstream have nothing to do. This is a classic knowledge work problem – workers upstream take on many tasks, cannot complete them all in a timely way, and workers downstream starve for work. The logical result of this is that the workers upstream will finish all the tasks (somewhat sloppily) towards the end of the deadline, leaving downstream workers little time to do their work. Since the work was done somewhat sloppily, the effort required by downstream workers increases with very tight deadlines. That results in further corner-cutting, resulting in a still more shoddy product.

However, our board is showing this up front. Encouraging workers upstream to adhere to their WIP limits allows them to focus on quality, complete work earlier, and get product to downstream colleagues such that they also have time to do a quality job.

smilee board

Knowledge workers have only one critical piece of machinery, it’s their brains. Since the 1950s, we’ve known that workers in a positive state of mind do a better job  – they work faster, the estimate more honestly, they innovate more. We can use the kanban to track what psychologists call Subjective Well Being. SWB tends to be a remarkably good indicator of  people’s emotional frame of mind. If people in a good mood really do tend to do better work, doesn’t it make sense to track how they are feeling?

Here we see a board where workers are tracking how they are feeling about particular tasks flowing through their kanban.  In you come in and everyone looks happy, then things are probably going well. But if a team is all reporting angry faces, the team is angry RIGHT NOW. Right now their performance is likely impaired.

Do you really want to wait a few weeks and have a meeting about this?  No, the problem is there now, the performance is impaired now – the cost of nipping this problem in the bud is currently at an all-time low. It’s not fun to fix this problem, but it is very necessary.

There are many other leading indicators you can get from your Personal Kanban, these are just a few. Use your board to see what’s happening in real time and fix problems in real time. Don’t wait for later. Usually waiting to solve a problem allows that problem to grow, making it more problematic, emotionally draining, and expensive to solve.

This is post 4 of a 13 part series. See the full listing of 13 Kanban Elements posts here.

*Boards 1 & 2 were made in Lean Kit Kanban
Board 3 was in Google Draw

Jim BensonA Leading Indicator–Element #4 of the Kanban

3 Comments on “A Leading Indicator–Element #4 of the Kanban”

  1. Pingback: 13 Elements Of Kanban | Personal Kanban

  2. Michael

    Question, more related to your Kanban examples above: how would you track a task which you are doing but are waiting on someone for before it can be moved to a completed bucket?

    1. Jim Benson

      Hi Michael,

      It depends on if that task is predictably waiting.

      For example, let’s say I’m writing a document and someone needs to approve it and that always happens, “approval” would be part of the value stream. That approval phase is someone else’s work. A later phase might be “completion”, where I get approval and then release the document. So it would leave my control and come back to me.

      Unpredictable waiting might take a lot of time, in which case we use “The Pen”. Or it might take just a little time, where we might just leave it in “Doing”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *