Setting explicit process policies is the special sauce for the successful implementation of Kanban. Yet in many ways it’s also the least understood step of The Kanban Method.
For many people, the term “policies” conjures up images of employee manuals and handbooks. And let’s be honest, while these types of organizational documents are necessary, they’re not exactly a workplace bible that helps us get our work done more effectively.
So why are process policies so important in Kanban? As a continuous flow methodology, Kanban doesn’t prescribe what needs to be done at different stages of the process; it lets the team decide the most effective way to keep work flowing. And we’re not just referring to procedural policies here; we’re also including the way people interact with their work and with each other.
The team makes these decisions together and publishes them as process policies. Making these policies explicit helps everyone understand what’s expected, reducing confusion and leading to greater process consistency. As the team evolves and grows, process policies can be revised and improved to reflect the current situation.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss the benefits of process policies and why it’s so important to make them not only explicit, but also visible.
Why we Need Explicit Process Policies
The rules of the road
To understand the benefits of establishing process policies in the workplace — and why they need to be both explicit and visible — let’s start with an example we can all relate to: road traffic systems.
Every country defines a set of general practices and procedures that apply to all road users. These “rules of the road” describe the principles and general ways in which vehicular traffic behaves, as well as govern interactions between vehicles and with pedestrians. Examples include pedestrian rights, speed limits, priority or right of way, intersections, and so forth. These policies are explicitly captured and described in the highway code. Every driver is required to take a test and get a license to show that they know and understand the policies.
When everyone follows the rules of the road, the traffic flows smoothly and we all can reach our destination unharmed.
Now consider the consequences of not having any road traffic policies — or even just one motorist misunderstanding, being unaware of, or deliberately ignoring the rules: disruption, chaos, and all too often, injury.
Let’s apply this analogy to the workplace. Manufacturing teams rely heavily on clearly defined process policies for a number of reasons. Safety is one of them. Shop floors need exact operating instructions in noticeable places to ensure workers don’t get hurt while operating heavy machinery.
Detailed instructions are essential to ensure that workers assemble products in the correct order. In an auto plant, for example, explicit policies direct steering wheels to go on steering columns and wheels to go on axles, not to mention the many processes that include intricate parts and pieces. Parts may revert to production while the auto body waits. This stops the line, slows productivity, and delays the time to market, costing the company time and resources.
In this example, it’s easy to see how an ambiguous process policy — or a defined process policy that isn’t visible — could impact the auto plant’s overall effectiveness in delivering value.
In knowledge work
In knowledge work, the idea of process policies is often overlooked, since the work isn’t as tangible as manufacturing and the procedures aren’t typically governed by an external force (as in traffic rules). Yet similar effects can occur. A team without explicit process policies risks losing cohesiveness, momentum, and time. The pace of work slows. Completed work reverts to re-work. And time keeps ticking away while resources are wasted.
Consider this example. The software development team at LeanKit practices continuous delivery. Previously, as developers completed work on a feature or bug fix they’d pass it off to QA for testing and then start work on a new item. If an issue was found in testing the work item went back into the build queue for resolution. Sometimes the work would be passed back and forth a number of times before it was finally production ready.
After looking at the metrics, the team realized that this back-and-forth handoff between development and QA was slowing down the process. The team decided that a policy was needed to improve overall efficiency. A policy was established whereby the Director of QA is now required to “release” a developer from his or her current project before new work can be pulled. The result is a much faster resolution of issues. There’s no wait time, so work is delivered more quickly — even if it introduces some slack time for the developers.
The Importance of Making Process Policies Explicit and Visible
While process policies can’t control human behavior, they can help guide our choices and actions. Making the “rules of the road” visible serves as a constant reminder of these decisions and expectations.
Process policies in the workplace serve a similar purpose to the road signs that control our traffic systems: If a speed limit is meant to be followed — but there’s no sign to remind us — the probability of violating the policy increases significantly.
Similarly, if you’re not supposed to start new work until you’ve finished your current task — but there’s no visual reminder of this policy — it’s all too easy to succumb to the temptation of having too much work in process.
In Kanban, process policies aren’t supposed to be static, meaningless documents that gather dust somewhere and have no impact on the way people really work. They’re a living, breathing representation of the team’s decisions on how to work together more effectively.
In short, defining your process policies and making them visible are symbiotic components of effective teams. This two-pronged approach can keep your team on track when questions arise.
Scenarios for Process Policies
To help you figure out where process policies may be beneficial for your team, consider these scenarios from a software development team:
- You’ve finished coding a new feature. What do you need to do to make it ready for QA and minimize the possibility of rework?
- You run into an impediment. Who needs to know? How are you going to seek resolution? While you’re waiting, do you start new work or not?
- Someone in sales comes rushing over with a “critical” new feature request from a customer. What’s your policy for prioritizing new work?
- Unplanned work is filling up your backlog. Who gets to add new work to your board? How do you protect your team’s process from outside stakeholders? How do you make sure that bug fixes, etc., are prioritized within their SLA requirements?
- You’re working on a feature, and have an awesome idea to make it even better. How do you avoid scope creep and keep to the definition of done?
Making process policies out of the answers to these and other questions requires a common effort from the whole team. One person can’t know everything about how everyone works, and if you want the whole team to buy into the policy, it needs to be agreed upon during open discussion. It also helps a team be more self-managed, minimizing the need to continuously check in with management for what to do next or how to handle a situation.
With explicit and visible process policies, people who are new to the team or not on the team can quickly get up to speed with your processes. Your stakeholders can easily discern not only the objectives, but also how to achieve those objectives. For management, explicit and visible process policies offer transparency and an extra layer of communication.
How to Make Your Process Policies Visible
As the team defines new process policies, finding a way to capture, share and preserve them is extremely important. They need to become an inherent part of the way work is visualized and managed. That’s where LeanKit comes in, enabling you to communicate your policy decisions right within your kanban board. Here are eight techniques to make your process policies visible in LeanKit.
Process policies make it easier for your team to know the rules of the road and improve effectiveness. And remember — these decisions are not a one-time effort. They need to be constantly revisited and evolved as the team’s situation changes.