Kanban is a trust machine


Lean started with Kanban, and Kanban is a trust machine. There are four elements elements to Kanban: a Heijunka board reflecting takt time, the Kanban cards, a shop stock, and component Kanbans.

You might have come across the short animations from my colleagues at Lean Sensei Partners. Here is our heijunka board:

As we had no way of knowing what the “demand” would be for short videos on lean thinking, we reasoned that the people with the highest number of linkedin “follow” should publish more frequently, and so introduce those in the team with less visibility, which we translated into a rhythm of publication – a takt time.

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By reading the plan, I know who is doing what and that on May 6thI expect a Kanban card asking me to deliver a video. Sure enough on the day I get Kanban signal:

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I have a video ready in my shop stock and I can send it to our video leader.

This is a signal for me to start working on my next video to have it ready for the next pull.

Lastly this creates a materials Kanban problem – I need to find the photos necessary to create the video, and I don’t yet have a regular source of procurement on that.

It’s a trust machine because, first, we all understand what we have to do and why. Our purpose here is to share our ideas on what we believe is important in lean thinking. Equally important, this is an opportunity for self-study (what do I have to say?) and team learning as we discuss each other’s work (What do we collectively think about that?).

Through the clarity of the Kanban, we can each 1/ discuss the plan and 2/ discuss each individual video. For instance, when I struggled with the rapid pace our takt time asked of me, I shared this with the video leader who immediately agreed to slow down my takt time (since we don’t know what real customer demand is, there is no big issue). Also when someone struggles with delivering on takt, they tell the leader right away who can help them out. Or, trickier, when I’m not sure about something someone is doing, I can have a quick chat with them about it.

It’s a trust machine because it allows us to break down difficult conversations at the Kanban level, and so creates the right conditions for sincere communications. We discuss problems once at a time. We make changes one at a time. We learn to work with each other and be more understanding of our quirks. Meantime, production happens. Collectively, we can be proud of what we’ve achieved – and give ourselves a pat on the back.

Kanban holds the key to sincere communication and building trust over the long term.

But what happens if someone steps out of this conversation? Sometimes you don’t notice (although with Kanban it’s visible enough), but responses get slower, conversations get more difficult, kanbans are skipped, changes are done grudgingly.

People change. Every one of us is under a lot of pressure from both daily life and egos and sometimes alignments shift. Sometimes is not even a matter that people don’t see their interest in working with you, but simply that the pressures of life have moved them elsewhere. Then they start doing weird stuff.

The hardest is when they behave in a way they know is wrong but feel they can’t do anything else. The justification engine gets going and the obvious source of blame is… their partners. Not fair enough. Not enough respect. Not enough help. Not enough consideration – we’ve all been through it.

Kanban cards don’t lie. When the Kanban card doesn’t come back there are only two options:

The delivery team is struggling, and willing to discuss it and work with you to fix the problems and get back on track.

The delivery team avoids communication and is on its way to doing something else.

In case 2/ the hardest decisions to make is: let them go and move on.

Precisely because lean can only function with trust, we invest massively in relationships. The main lean principle is relationship first: first fix the relationship, then fix the problem. And in 99% of cases it works spectacularly. But this also means accepting the case where the relationship is unfixable because the other guy has already made different choices which they simply have not told you yet.

When the Kanban cards don’t come back, there is either a fixable problem, or they are being held for ransom. Accept it and don’t try to fix what can’t be fixed.

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