If Scrum isn’t working could we try Kanban?


If your team is currently struggling in their Scrum practice, you may be ready to give up or try something else.  Kanban is becoming quite popular and I’m recently a Kanban convert so I can understand the allure especially having seen it work so fantastically for teams.  However, as a coach, it’s my responsibility to find out the root cause of the team’s problems with Scrum first.  Sometimes it’s a simple change that can get them back on track and well worth the cost savings of another training expense.Here are some questions to ask when scrum “isn’t working”:

  • Are the timeboxes too short? or too long?
  • Is the backlog volatile? (many priority changes during a sprint or changes in stories planned)
  • Are there impediments consistently through every sprint that delay the work of the team that are either not resolved or outside the team’s control?
  • Is team size larger than 9 people?
  • Is planning and forecasting of work being done and communicating?
  • How are the team’s stakeholders reacting to the scrum practices?
  • Is management supportive of the scrum team and their practice?

There aren’t right or wrong answers to the questions above, but they do give a good picture of where the pain points are with the team and their stakeholders so that you can take the next step which is to begin trying new techniques or refreshing old ones to get the team back on track.

So when do I recommend Kanban for a team?  It depends. Don’t you love that answer?!  It happens to be very true regardless of how flippant it may sound.  These are the cases where I’ve seen Kanban “fit” better for a few teams I’ve coached.

  1. Team A had been practicing scrum for years and very poorly.  They had varied sprint lenghts, team members that would be borrowed by another team for an entire sprint, non-existent Product Owner and never did estimation or forecasting for future sprints.  There was such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth for scrum that we decided it would be best to just try something new with less prescription and more adaptivity and a newfound energy to make it work with a strong agile coach.
  2. Team B had never done anything but Waterfall or organized chaos (which they self-admittedly claimed).  They were an operations team that had several stakeholders across the company so their manager was essentially operating as a pseudo-Product Owner/Intake manager.  Kanban was chosen since the work they received was a steady flow of changes deployed as soon as they were completed.  Kanban works really well for maintenance and operations project teams since the work is relatively the same size each time they receive a new request, sometimes small and mostly steady for those teams.
  3. Team C had been practicing scrum for over a year and they consistently met only 50-65% of their sprint commitments.  After repeatedly trying to get the team to accept less into their sprint plan (4 week sprints), reduce their sprint length to 2 weeks and getting their team members cross trained, I decided to show them how to implement Kanban flow and WIP Limits into their sprints; the ScrumBan approach.  We created more “states” on their sprint board from “Not Started, In Progress, Done” to “Ready Queue, Dev In progress, Dev Done, Test In Progress, Test Done, Demo and Done”.  Then we updated the WIP limit for each state. These two small changes would allow them to see how long it took for work to progress through each stage, limited how much they could do and also raised awareness across the team where work was not moving.

Some important things to remember with Kanban is to be diligent about keeping the ready queue current and populated for the team so they can keep moving through the backlog, and honoring the WIP limits and adjusting them as needed when you first start out so you can find that sweet spot.  Equally important is metrics.  Too many teams forget about this or use it just as a status report but don’t take the time or know how to really analyze the metrics so they can explain the cycle time for outliers, make improvements or adjustments on the WIP to smooth out the flow and reduce the bottlenecks and watch the CFD (Cumulative Flow Diagram) to see trends so they can highlight success areas and recreate those situations to have more in the future.

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