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How Kanban Got Hot - David Anderson Interview Part I

01.11.2010
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Kanban looks like it's becoming the next big trend in agile development.  With its simple, adaptive approach to work organization, Kanban's Lean approach to software development may become even more popular than Scrum.  Although Scrum is fresh and exciting, Kanban has the advantage, at least in perception, of being the newest method in software development right now.  DZone recently got the chance to speak with David Anderson, who pioneered the use of Lean methodology in software development known as Kanban.  In this exclusive interview, Anderson tells us how Kanban got its start and gained momentum.  He also identifies the two main groups that have driven Kanban adoption.

The first use of Kanban-like methods, Anderson says, was in the fall of 2004 with a Microsoft IT department.  The following year, he published the results of his experiment.  The first implementation of Kanban, with all the modern attributes, evolved out of work that Anderson did at Corbis, which started in September 2006.  In May 2007 Anderson started talking publicly about his experiences in Kanban.  Its rise in fame, he says, happened in just the last two years, and its adoption accelerated in 2009.  The Yahoo group, kanbandev, has grown to over 1000 members.  Anderson says, "If you follow the Kanban tag on twitter, you'll realize that there can be as many as six to ten tweets per hour talking about Kanban, and about 90% of those are talking about it in a software development context."  There's also a large number of blogs that talk about Kanban.  "I'm just amazed at how well the adoption has been going."

Anderson thinks it was an open space he ran at the Agile 2007 conference that initially sparked widespread interest in Kanban.  "There were about 25 people attending that, and several of them decided to go back to their offices and try it out," he said.  "As a result of that original open space, a Yahoo group was started and those early adopters went out, started trying it, and reported the results to the Yahoo group.  Gradually we began to see more interest in it."  Anderson started getting invited to speak at more events, usually smaller events, during 2008.  That's when the Kanban movement started to gain momentum.  Anderson says there's a lot of traction in the U.K., Scandinavia, and Europe in general.  Kanban has also made its way to countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Israel.  However, he says there isn't a lot of adoption in India and Asia generally.  He recently sent an appeal to various Asian countries to see if they were interested in hearing about Kanban, but the counties weren't very responsive.  Even in Japan, where the origins of Lean and Kaizen are deeply rooted in the culture of Toyota, there isn't much traction for agile software development.

"It actually a fair comment that there's very little agile adoption in Japan," said Anderson.  "Toyota is very conservative and old fashioned in its software development methods.  Japan generally is a very conservative culture so it's not a surprise that they have been slow to adopt agile practices.  Outside of the hard core group of Japanese, such as Kenji Hiranabe, there's been very little evangelism done over there!"  Anderson says that there is some workflow visualization mechanisms, such as whiteboards, in use, but that's about as far as it goes.  The Japanese refer to their visualizations as "kanban" because it's a literal interpretation - the word "kanban" means "visual card" in Japanese.  The Kanban that the Japanese are doing is not Anderson's Kanban because there's no limit to work-in-progress (WIP) or any other aspect of Lean other than in visualization of work.  Anderson says he hasn't seen much Kanban adoption in China or South East Asia either.

In the Western Hemisphere though, Kanban adoption has taken off.  DZone asked Anderson what the driving forces were behind Kanban growth in the last two years.  He said the companies that were drawn to Kanban and worked well in the system fit into two main categories.  "The larger group of adopters are people at companies that have struggled or failed to implement agile software development and/or project management," said Anderson.  "I feel that the main reason for failure to adopt is related to the culture of the organization and resistance to change.  Agile tends to be sold and delivered in a way that involves a significant change that has to happen fairly quickly.  In fact, agile transitions tend to be sold by consultants in a very non-agile way."  Anderson says most agile adoption consultants put together a big plan with vast, sweeping changes.  It usually involves a lot of training in Scrum, XP, or both, and then they sometimes set a single date for the complete rollover to agile processes.   Scrum, in particular, implies that some job titles change, and sometimes, a worker's roles and responsibilities change as well.  This kind of rapid change represents a significant barrier to adoption.  Anderson says these changes can raise resistance among a workforce because it tampers with significant parts of a person's sense of identity and self-worth, including their job title and personal skills.  

The second category of Kanban adopters consists of organizations that didn't ever show any interest in agile.  "That was a very early market for Kanban," said Anderson.  It appealed to many non-agile organizations because it's a different approach that doesn't try and change anything initially.  Anderson explains, "What we'll do is we'll try and understand how you currently work and let problems reveal themselves."  A team using Kanban will identify and solve problems as they come along.  "No one's job title changes, no one's roles and responsibilities change, and any changes that we do make will be made incrementally," said Anderson.  Over the last few years, Anderson observed that Kanban seemed to be much more workable in organizations that had either tried agile and resisted it, or never tried agile at all.  This group of agile-resisters turned out to be the main market for Kanban, Anderson said.  "We're not doing Kanban to create some sort of religious conversion of people away from existing agile methods," said Anderson.  "Kanban is there to help organizations achieve greater agility and potentially a number of other things.  I see Kanban as 'post-Agile' in the sense that it introduces an incremental, evolutionary approach to change while the agile movement was a rebellion that introduced a revolution against existing methods from the 1990's."  

David Anderson is the Vice President at Lean Software & Systems Consortium and he also runs his own consulting firm, David J. Anderson & Associates.  The second part of DZone's interview with Anderson is titled "Where Kanban Works Well - David Anderson Interview".  Much of the research and case studies for Kanban come from the community, which has forums at the Limited WIP Society website and the kanbandev Yahoo group.