Untangling Kanban

Rich Clarke
Jan 15 · 4 min read

I spent too much of last week wrestling with a tangled slinky spring. It put me in mind of continuous improvement in Kanban. Let me tell you why.

In case you’re not familiar with slinky, it’s a helical steel spring that can walk downstairs by itself. Invented by accident in the 1940s, it’s tactile and fun to play with. Science teachers use it for teaching about waves, demonstrating compression, amplitude and harmonics. And if you swing it around at random, you can make a tangled knot. Like my son did last week.

It fell to me to untangle it.

tangled steel slinky spring
tangled steel slinky spring

For a while, I tried to untangle it by instinct. I thought I was doing pretty well. I sat down to do it in front of the telly. “This won’t take long”, I thought. It wasn’t all bad — I ended up watching the entire first season of Detectorists. But by then it was 2 am and I had work in the morning. I needed an approach.

The science bit

I recalled Hooke’s Law describing how a spring responds to the forces applied to it. When you apply stress, the spring is under strain and it deforms. A slinky spring can be stretched and twisted quite a lot and still bounce back. But if you stretch it too far, it will deform permanently and the spring will be ruined. Each coil has a behaviour it always follows. Work with this, I realised, and I can untangle the spring.

People and teams

Thinking about the coils made me think about teams. People in teams have built-in behaviour. We all respond to stress, one way or another. The right amount of stress can be motivating, too much and we’re in danger of being broken. To work effectively, like the slinky, teams need to be able to stretch and change. Like the slinky, a team can get into a knot. And untangling the knot is where Kanban can help.

Improving flow with Kanban

Kanban is a method for making gradual improvements to the flow of work through your system. The many online Kanban tools help visualise work as cards moving through a series of columns. But there is a lot more to Kanban than cards in columns. You also need to continually review and improve the flow.

Start where you are

Kanban says ‘start where you are’. You might be tempted to imagine an ideal process. Instead, start with the process you have right now. With my slinky, there was no point pretending I didn’t have a giant knot. To get the spring flowing again, I just had to start with the tangle I had in my hand.

It’s the same with teams. Start by visualising the process as it is right now. When you want to change it, do. But begin by looking at what’s really happening.

Make rules explicit

As I worked on untangling the spring, I found a few techniques that worked. Things like: continue twisting clockwise until the tension reveals a simple twist. Pass the end through the twist. Repeat. Some rules were emerging.

Like my knot, teams often work to unwritten rules. Because they’re unwritten, everyone in the team could have a different idea of what they are. So work out what your rules are, discuss them, write them down. They are your rules. Make them explicit.

Continuous improvement

When you make a change, reflect on the effect of that change. After a few ‘clockwise twist’ iterations, that wasn’t working anymore. The previous problem was dealt with. Now what?

With Kanban, the challenge is to spot the next most important problem to solve. What’s having most impact on the flow? Where is the next bottleneck? Identify the bottleneck, analyse it, fix it. Then move on to the next one. This way, the flow of work through the team will continuously improve.

Limit work in progress

Untangling needs to be done carefully and a step at a time. With my spring there really was only one thing to do next. Sometimes that was untangling the next knot. Sometimes it meant leaving a clump in place and passing it through the spring as it was.

Depending on your team and the kind of work you are doing, you may be able to work on more than one thing at a time. But context switching is tiring and it leads to mistakes. So keep things simple and focused by limiting work in progress.

I did eventually untangle my slinky spring. It was a long slog, but I enjoyed the thinking it led me to. I got there by working with the slinky’s built-in behaviour, not against it. It’s the same with teams, I’m sure. Work out how we tick. Make a small adjustment, take stock, do it all again. Good luck.

A nice tidy slinky spring
A nice tidy slinky spring

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