personal kanban

The Lean Brain, Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Lean says: Map the Value Stream Your brain says: I’ve been doing this so long, it’s become second nature to me. The steps are right here - in my head.

What’s at play here: Illusion of Transparency. Curse of Knowledge/Information Imbalance. Status Quo Thinking. Groupthink/False Consensus Effect. Availability Bias.

It was day four of the value stream mapping exercise and tempers were beginning to fray. Despite having worked together for years, the members of this outwardly cohesive development team struggled to identify the basic activities needed to create value for their customer. While at 17 steps they agreed they were close to completing a first pass of their map, they couldn’t seem to reach consensus when it came to certain conditions and boundaries and for some, even the target was nebulous.

If they couldn’t agree on how they currently operate - without that clear baseline - how could they improve their future state?

Oftentimes the curse of expertise is the assumption that other people’s interpretation of events matches our own. So long as the value stream is left implicit, the steps - the order, the handoffs, the standards - are highly subjective. As a result, effort is duplicated. Unnecessary churn occurs. Bottlenecks and work starvation become business as usual.

And no one seems notice.

How to mitigate:

Especially when it comes to non-routine creative work, eliminate assumptions and normalize expectations by making the current state explicit. Visualizing steps essential to the process exposes mismatches, surfaces non-value-added steps (waste), and promotes constancy of purpose.

Up next in The Lean Brain: Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice

Earlier posts in this series:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation


Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

The Lean Brain, Post 4: Push is Blind. Pull is Informed. See Beyond the Silo

Lean says: Establish Pull Your brain says: I work best under stress! Chaos motivates me!

What’s at play here: Brain on Stress. Learned Helplessness.

Most of us have seen the iconic “Job Switching” episode of I Love Lucy, where the titular character and her BFF Ethel find themselves doing a stint as line workers at Kramer’s Candy Kitchen. Subjected to organizational silos and a despotic supervisor who rules with a capricious conveyor belt and leads with the threat of expulsion, the women’s only KPI is to ensure not a single piece of candy makes it into the packing room unwrapped. Aligning their performance to this solitary target, they resort to hiding unwrapped chocolates in their mouths, their blouses and most memorably, in Lucy’s oversized chef’s hat.

Their excessive WIP and struggle to keep apace at 100% utilization, coupled with a toxic KPI which makes zero mention of producing a quality product, creates a system that forces an overwhelmed Lucy and Ethel to produce defects and hide wasted inventory necessitating rework, causing stress and chaos, and ultimately resulting in burnout (not to mention their respective stomach aches and ultimate dismissals from the company).

At this candy factory, supply rather than demand drives process. Work is being pushed onto Lucy and Ethel when they have neither the capacity to process it nor a signaling mechanism to slow it down or make it stop when a moment to breathe is needed. Upstream workers in the kitchen have no insight into the capacity of downstream workers in the wrapping room and in turn, workers downstream in the packing room are no doubt starved for work as they are left waiting for product.

Devoid of any context beyond their own work station, the hapless line workers - through no fault of their own - are oblivious to the fact that the wrapping room is part of a larger system. As a result, they are incapable of seeing the impact of their work-as-a-bottleneck on other parts of the value stream.

When we become overloaded, we focus myopically on our tasks rather than on their flow. Constantly forced to react we fail to be thoughtful about what it is we are doing, conceding control over our situation. Confronted with our own lack of agency we default to relying on others to push work on us, rather than pull it ourselves. Once this learned helplessness takes over, flow breaks down, and any hope for kaizen becomes futile.

How to mitigate:

This classic TV clip masterfully breaks almost every tenet of Lean thinking. Lucy and Ethel lack clarity over their roles, their goals, and the value stream; they have no visualization mechanism to understand their own capacity or a communication mechanism to convey it to others; they are assigned to a supervisor who rates rather than develops their performance; they’re driven by fear in the form of a useless KPI; they are afforded zero respect (agency) to stop the process when problems arise nor do they have the slack or support to so much as suggest improving their process.

Pull requires us to build thoughtful systems that allow for upstream and downstream transparency, continuous feedback, respect-as-agency, and easy adjustment to ensure changes and improvements are made in context.

Pull provides pockets of predictability and pause, allowing downstream workers to plan for, focus on, and complete work with quality while having enough slack to pursue kaizen opportunities.

Whereas pull in manufacturing seeks to prevent overproduction, so too does pull in a knowledge work setting.

What is overproduction in knowledge work? Burnout.

While extreme stress might serve as a positive motivator for physical performance and as such, prove beneficial to athletes, studies show it has the opposite effect on knowledge workers, impacting cognitive capacity - actually contributing to WIP - compromising overall performance and quality.

Whether actual or perceived, physical or cognitive, extreme stress activates the brain’s threat circuitry, shutting down all non-essential functions so as to direct the body’s attention towards eradicating the potential danger. Among those functions considered “non-essential” are digestion, the immune system, and most important to knowledge workers, higher level thinking. When we are stressed, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for executive functions - which includes our ability to concentrate, plan, organize, memorize, learn, problem-solve - the very skills essential to knowledge workers.

Utilizing a light-weight, flexible visual control like a Personal Kanban provides knowledge workers with a framework for understanding personal and team workloads and workflow. It gives them transparency into both the upstream supplier and the downstream customer’s context, as well as the opportunity to recognize and communicate to others their capacity to take on or defer more work. The associated WIP limit prevents them from taking on more work than they can handle, limiting cognitive stress thus allowing them to focus on and finish with quality only those tasks they have the mental capacity to process.

Up next in The Lean Brain: Post 5: Improvement is Not an Option

Earlier posts:

Introduction: 5 Ways Our Brain Can Thwart Lean

Post 1: Value is a Conversation

Post 2: Visualization Begets Alignment

Post 3: Flow: You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice

Tonianne is partner & principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, co-founder of Kaizen Camp™ and Modus Institute. Toni explores the relationship between performance, motivation, and neuroscience, is passionate about the roles intention, collaboration, value-creation, and happiness play in “the future of work,” and appreciative of the ways in which psychology, Lean, systems thinking, and the work of W. Edwards Deming can facilitate these ends. She enjoys Coltrane, shoots Nikon, butchers the Italian language (much to the embarrassment of her family), is a single malt enthusiast, and is head over heels in love with her adopted home, Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @Sprezzatura.

Modus Cooperandi's Speaking and Workshop Schedule

Modus Cooperandi has a great deal of events penciled in on the calendar over the next few months.  Listed in detail below is where you'll be able to find Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry presenting talks and workshops all across the globe. This month Jim will deliver the closing keynote at the 9th Annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Jim's keynote - Why Can't Johnny Code? Because he's got too much to do." will be presented on Wednesday, April 23 at 4pm.

May proves to be a very busy month for Modus Cooperandi.  Jim and Tonianne will present a half-day workshop at the 26th Annual International Shingo Conference in Sandusky, Ohio.  Reimagining the Gemba: Applying Lean to Knowledge Work Using Personal Kanban will be held on Monday, May 5. 2014 from 1-5pm. For more information on the workshop you can view the video here.

The middle of the month sees Jim delivering a keynote at Dare Festival  2014 in Antwerp on Friday, May 16.  Jim will be presenting - I'm Alive When I'm at Work, Thank You Very Much.  Dare Festival Antwerp is held May 15-17.

May finishes up will be a Lean Panelist at the 2014 IPMA Forum  for the workshop - Assimilating Agile, Lean, and Traditional Project Management which is presented by PMI Olympia on May 21 from 1-2pm.

In June Jim will be a keynote speaker at Agile Australia 2014.  Jim's keynote titled - Embracing Disruption: You Are Your Process will be presented during the conference which will take place on June 17-18. Jim will also be conducting two workshops and following up last year's Kaizen Camp Melbourne with another one, this time in Sydney. Jim's workshop Visual Project Management - See it to manage it will be held in Melbourne on Monday, June 16 from 9am-5pm and again in Sydney on Thursday, June 19 from 9am-5pm.  More information on Kaizen Camp Sydney to follow soon.

To keep up with all the Modus Cooperandi Events you can click on Calendar at the top of any page on this website.

Finding Hidden WIP

WIP that is hidden Limiting Work in Process (WIP) is not easy.

Our work is largely invisible, which means it’s hard to notice. It creeps up on us. Well, heck, it’s invisible, it just walks right up - bold and unabashed. It doesn’t have to sneak - we’re simply blind to it.

Then, one day, we notice it is there.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve worked with several groups that are shocked when we’ve found hidden WIP. To them, we seem like ghost hunters finding inefficiencies and overload where there was previously only air.

So, how can you find hidden WIP?

It’s easy: always assume it’s there.

When you start from a position of knowing that there’s more WIP lurking, you examine the shadows more closely. Here’s three common shadows:

Big Tickets - People are always asking about ticket sizing. If your tickets are too big they have lots of room in them. Lots of room for WIP to hide. Lots of tasks that you can start and not finish. Lots of ways for the ticket to get stuck. Ultimately, the big tickets have lots of shadows for WIP to hide. Tickets get bogged down because one or more of those hidden tasks is hard to complete. (Note to some: user stories are usually pretty big tickets).

Overfocus on Team Work - Time and again we see teams limit their WIP on a team board, but overlook the individuals. So the team will have a WIP limit of 5 or 6 and be meeting that limit just fine. Upon examination, however, one or two people are involved in every ticket. Since our work is completed by people, overloading them defeats the purpose of the Personal Kanban in the first place.

Self Deception - We put things on the board that we want to put on the board. Everything else ... hmm. We’ve seen software teams overloaded with unboarded support tasks because they weren’t “real work”. We’ve seen researchers overloaded with unboarded administrative tasks because they weren’t “real work.” We’ve seen people with dozens of incomplete tasks that were “too small for the board.”

Tonianne and I now look for these things out of habit. We immediately look for oversized expectations, individual overload, and unreported work every time we see a board.

Image from Cecil Goes Wild ... which could be used to teach kids about hidden WIP.

Personal Kanban Wins the Shingo Prize

Shingo EmblemPersonal Kanban won a Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence this year. This is the highest honor in Lean and we share the award with some pretty august company.

This award is humbling. Shingo awards are usually focused on manufacturing or applications of specific Lean principles with many direct nods to Toyota.

Personal Kanban is strongly rooted in Lean ideals, but it much more focused (as the name implies) on the individual – on us as people.

Tonianne and I are greatly energized by this award and look forward to seeing Personal Kanban continue to grow and thrive.

Read about it on CBS News and the Lean Systems Society sites.

Modus Cooperandi White Paper: Kanban: Diversity and Optimization of Knowledge Working Teams


Announcing the publication of Kanban: Diversity and Optimization of Knowledge Working Teams – a new Modus Cooperandi White Paper.

Late in 2012, we conducted a Board Walk (a site visit where we meet with teams using kanban or Personal Kanban and help them optimize the board and the team itself) at a client in the United States.  There were 15 individual teams, each of which had its own individually designed boards. Each board had a unique value stream, work item types, policies, and methods for judging completeness and quality.

Both management and the teams were frustrated because they hadn’t yet found a board design that worked for the entire company. They were looking for standardization.

However, each of these boards were, in some way, optimized for each individual team. Each team had its own context and these boards related specifically to that context. Each team was also actively improving their boards on a regular basis – meaning that optimization was continuing.

This white paper contrasts many of these boards, showing the differences in design of each board and the ramifications of those variations.

A PDF of this is available for organizations requiring a bulk purchase. Please write.

Lean Coffee–Value Through Flexibility and Democracy

In late 2012, Modus Press will be releasing a book on Lean Meetings.  At the core of this is a tool we use called Lean Coffee.

Where it came from

In 2009, Jeremy Lightsmith and I were sitting at a coffee shop wondering about how to start a new Lean-thinking community of practice in Seattle. This sounded like a great idea, but neither of us had enough time to devote to running yet another professional organization.

So I suggested that we make it self organizing. We find a place, a time, and an open-but directed, format.

Value Through Flexibility

Each Lean Coffee Meeting works like this:

  • Framework: Draw a Personal Kanban
  • Personal Agendas: Invite attendees to write their topics on sticky notes
  • Democratization: Giving them two votes each, ask attendees to vote on the topics on the table
  • Group Agenda: Prioritize the sticky notes
  • Discuss

There are three main things happening here:

  1. There is a tight enough framework for focus
  2. There is a loose enough framework for new ideas to appear, and
  3. The framework gives everyone ownership.

Why is this important?

In a Lean Coffee style meeting, no one “owns” the agenda – it is created on-the-fly. A meeting is called with a topic and maybe a few item to be discussed. This format allows the good brains you invited to your meeting (I hope you invited good people) to extend the agenda in useful ways. Since the group votes for items discussed, chances that people will drone or or otherwise hijack the meeting are much less.

Where We’ve Used ItLean Coffee with 80 Participants in Melbourne, Australia, at AMP

Since launching the Seattle Lean Coffee group in Seattle, we’ve brought Lean Coffee style meetings to organizations including, RW Baird, The Library Corporation, Comcast, Nordstrom, and The United Nations (in offices worldwide). In the corporate setting, we’ve found the lean coffee format to greatly lessen the amount of time wasted trying to “get on the same page,” and greatly increase the productivity and effectiveness of the gathered group.

What This Means

Getting On The Same Page – Most meetings waste a lot of time discussing background to issues that everyone already knows. The Lean Coffee format asks people to write what they wish to talk about on sticky notes and place them into a to-discuss area. When everyone sees the gathered topics, they get context of the topics individually and in relationship to other topics. Seeing this, attendees can quickly align around the topics, their meanings, and the goals of the meeting.

And if they can’t? Well, then we’ve just discovered something valuable to discuss.

Increased Productivity and Effectiveness – Meetings tend to waste a lot of time talking about talking. We will go over the agenda, we will discuss how the agenda isn’t perfect, we will rigidly stick to the agenda. People are frustrated with meetings not because they don’t want to work together, but because they view them as ineffective and, therefore, as interruptions in their day.  With a Lean Coffee, groups can create a relevant agenda designed to quickly achieve value.

InfoPak 2 - Personal Kanban 101: How to Build Your First Personal Kanban

View more presentations from Jim Benson.

Modus Cooperandi is pleased to announce the release of its second Personal Kanban InfoPak. In Personal Kanban 101: Achieving Focus & Clarity with Your First Personal Kanban we discuss the essentials for getting your board started. Topics addressed include how to establish value stream, backlog and WIP, and why there are only two hard rules to implementing this productivity tool.

As always, please feel free to download, distribute, comment and let us know what you think.

Personal Kanban and the World Bank

World Bank in Washington DC Modus Cooperandi is excited to announce our upcoming personal kanban project, where we will use our Personal Kanban techniques in a directed exercise with knowledge workers from around the world.  From the 21st through the 25th of September, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry will be working with The World Agroforestry Centre and the World Bank to lead their Capacity Building Program on the Opportunity Costs of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Land Use Change (OpCost) Writeshop, at the World Bank Institute in Washington D.C. The intent of this directed exercise is to create a comprehensive technical document. As small working groups and as a unified team, participants will use personal kanban to maintain project coherence and track completion. The project is expected to achieve rapid release of a highly technical product by knowledge workers from around the world.  The multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary group will benefit from personal kanban's visual controls and work flow.

We will be blogging and tweeting about the event as it unfolds.

Photo: Brixton