Kanban at Scale – How our Guidance has Changed

Nov 03, 2020 3 min read
Kanban at Scale – How our Guidance has Changed

Since the early days of the Kanban Method our guidance on where to start in your organization has been consistent – start with a customer facing service! Why?

Since the early days of the Kanban Method our guidance on where to start in your organization has been consistent – start with a customer facing service! Why?

Old news: Start with a customer-facing service

With a customer-facing service you have the opportunity to refute  demand – to say “no”. This means that a full triage of “now” (in current  WIP); “later” (deferred until capacity is available); and “not at all”  is possible. This is necessary in order to balance demand against your  capability to supply and to relieve the delivery workflow of  overburdening. You need to do this in order to improve flow efficiency,  shrink lead times and improve predictability (thin-tailed lead time  distribution).

Kanban at large-scale needs a different approach

However, our guidance for large-scale Kanban implementations has changed – what has changed and why did we change it?

We now recommend that large-scale implementations start with internal shared and platform services and leave customer-facing services  until later.

What caused this change?

Primarily a highly impressive case study implementation from Mexico  by Alejandro Rodriguez and Nacho Bassino of the travel firm Best Day.  Partly due to political constraints Kanban coaching at Best Day was  restricted to improving internal shared services – they had no ability  to influence or change end-to-end customer-facing services. Despite this  constraint, they succeeded in improving customer-facing services to  maturity level 3 – fit-for-purpose – meeting customers’ expectations  without actually acting directly on the customer-facing service delivery  workflow. All of the improvements were achieved by improving lead times  and predictability (thin tailed distributions) on the internal  services.

Why is it easier to start inside?

Internal services are often quite small scale and typical Kanban  implementation patterns for maturity levels 0 or 1 are sufficient,  coupled to some simple metrics such as (internal-)customer lead time and  system lead time, and the appropriate Kanban Cadences to provide the  feedback to focus on blocking issues, escalate problems and trim the  tail of the lead time distribution.

The benefits of starting on the inside

Now mix into this, elements of our dependency management solution,  including capacity allocation providing guaranteed capacity for specific  customer-facing services. The consequence is that delay drains out of  the customer-facing service, flow efficiency improves, lead times shrink  dramatically, and the true customer lead time distribution becomes  thin-tailed and predictable. This is a achieved with a minimum of  political disruption.

The organization improves from the inside-out!

New news: Inside-out is counter-intuitive.

This is counter to established lean manufacturing/Toyota Production  System guidance that suggests you improve things outside-in and start  with the customer. This serves to highlight yet again how the Kanban  Method isn’t simply Lean repackaged, rather it stands on its own as a  method for managing modern (professional) services businesses and has  evolved its own unique set of practices and guidance.


Starting with a customer-facing service is never wrong advice.  Eventually, you have to face the customer, and implement triage if you  are to balance demand against capability and avoid overburdening your  system. However, starting there in large-scale implementations can set  the bar too high. Starting with a customer facing service aspires to  maturity level 3 (or even 4) straight away. However, you are more likely  to be dealing with a maturity level 0 or 1 organization and just taking  it to maturity level 2 will be a challenge. You will make more headway  faster focusing on internal services and building trust as you do so.  Best Day have shown us that this technique works and can take the  business all the way to maturity level 3 and beyond. The Kanban mantra  that we should ¨be like water¨ and ¨go around the rock¨ would suggest  that when the inertia of changing the interface with the customer, and  changing the business model used with the customer, is too much too  soon, then focusing on improving internal shared services and platform  services, is a great way to make progress, build trust, and improve  customer-facing services without any direct intervention.

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