Nearshore Americas

Kanban Case Study: Taking ‘Lean’ to the Furthest Limits on Globally Distributed Teams

A recent post on the practice of “Kanban” stirred up significant interest at Nearshore Americas – so we decided to revisit the issue and look specifically at how it works for globally distributed teams.  In the previous article, we touched on Kanban’s  framework, in this analysis, we look at Kanban usage by a product development team at Experian (the global information and credit processing firm) and how it leads to organic cross-functional team development.

The Experian Experience

“The development team was split between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Australia.  The project management team was spread between the United States, Kuala Lumpur, and Australia; the entire team of 30+ people were working through one digital board,” said Adnan Aziz, a Software Development Manager, based in Kuala Lumpur.  Aziz has been with Experian since 2004 and currently manages development teams that build online consumer behavior measurement products, he also sensitizes other teams in the various business units at Experian to agile methodologies like SCRUM, Agile itself, and Kanban.

“We built a board culture in the office,” mentioned Aziz when talking about the fact that his teams use Kanban boards not only to visually manage project workflow but also program workflow.

“In SCRUM there is no way to visualize dependences, the very dependencies that were causing us to run over on sprints.”

Aziz said that upper management at Experian is encouraging hundreds of teams across various business units to move towards lean methodologies.  He said that although some teams are still running waterfall, that the vast majority have employed elements of lean methodologies and are moving in that direction although “it is not going to happen overnight,” he added.  Aziz’s team looked to Kanban when agile and SCRUM was leaving something to be desired.

“In SCRUM there is no way to visualize dependences, the very dependencies that were causing us to run over on sprints.  So we created a board to visualize the dependences and value streams.  The help is that it created a single point of visualization,” remarked Aziz.

And that single point of visualization does not just help to show dependencies, bottlenecks, estimate end-to-end cycle times and do away with that expensive question in business of “what are you working on right now,” but also helps to reprioritize the conversation of an entire team so time is not wasted talking about things out of order that would probably have to be revisited later anyway.

“You can immediately see that team A has five items [or stories] blocked for instance; everything that is blocked goes to a priority list.  You can imagine how all 30+ people can see on a digital board the items that are blocked and who are assigned to them.  We use an internal chat tool that sends alerts about blocked items and reasons for blockage, a lot of times someone else from the team jumped on the bug and fix it, the teams look after themselves,” stated Aziz.  Likewise, when an item is unblocked team members are updated instantaneously and the item becomes available to another team member (like from a developer to a QA engineer) to move it towards completion.

Yielding Intended Value

Aziz also mentioned that Kanban lends itself to the organic development of cross-functional teams that really yield the intended value as opposed to pre-architected cross-functional teams that are sometimes designed based on corporate theory rather than business reality.

Aziz discussed that when there are items that are continually being blocked or not moving through the project stages at the desired rate you invite those involved from the various teams to participate in the affected team’s standup meeting to talk about solutions.  That way cross-functional team interaction develops from the bottom up based on need and although it takes time, it seems Aziz is keen on letting it happen naturally and letting teams have their own adventure with it.

Value Stream Mapping

If you are still a bit confused about Kanban you can liken it to value stream mapping (VSM).  VSM is defined as a “Special type of flow chart that uses symbols known as ‘the language of Lean’ to depict and improve the flow of inventory and information,” in Learning to See, published by researchers Mike Rother and John Shock.

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The authors argue that VSM delivers maximum value to the customer by minimizing waste through the “design, build, and sustain” process and that lean focused “improvement events” are not enough without VSM to drive the cohesion of those events and subsequent waste minimization (i.e. the improvement events of SCRUM vs. the continual improvement of Kanban).

Although value stream mapping has a defined language of symbols that represent everything from suppliers to process, items are still what flow through value stream to which value is added while waste is vigilantly watched and stricken from the process.  Kanban is much the same as it focuses on the development of the item derived from the customer’s value perception, but additionally sets up for a highly collaborative team to drive the items even if they are scattered around the globe.

Jon Tonti

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