Democratizing Leadership with the Kanban Practices



As an Accredited Kanban coach and trainer I'm in the business of developing leaders. I help them improve and take responsibility for the services they deliver and the products they develop. I want to share with you how the 6 General Practices of the Kanban Method makes that possible.


My aim is to help you discover how the Kanban practices make responsible acts of leadership accessible to everyone.


A Model for Evolutionary Change


There is a simple yet powerful formula for introducing evolutionary change within an organization:


  1. Introduce a stressor.

  2. Provide a reflection mechanism.

  3. Encourage acts of leadership.


Introduce a stressor: A complex system like your organization needs context-appropriate stressors to provoke improvement. When pursuing improvement initiatives this stress often comes in the form of change - a new way of doing something. It might be implementing a new practice, adopting a new principle, or embracing a new value, amongst other things. Without stress there is no effective catalyst for change to happen and improvements to manifest themselves.


Provide a reflection mechanism: Once a stressor has been introduced to the system we need a way to detect if the fitness of our system has improved, worsened, or remained unchanged. We need feedback loops to evaluate if our service or product has become fitter-for-its-purpose. This might come in the form of measurements, meetings, observations, and personal reflections, to name a few.


Encourage acts of leadership: Introducing an appropriate stressor and inspecting the system with well defined reflection mechanisms are acts of leadership in and of themselves. Equally important at this juncture is to foster leadership at all levels so that something can be done with the knowledge acquired.


The Kanban Method embodies this formula and enables leadership to flourish amongst everyone. But how specifically do the 6 Practices do this? In what manner do they democratize leadership? I'll address that now.


Note: The intention here is not to describe the practices in detail. For that I suggest you download the free e-book Essential Kanban Condensed by David J Anderson and Andy Carmichael. Rather, I would like to highlight how each of the practices contributes to a system in such a manner as to make available to everyone the capability to demonstrate responsible leadership in pursuit of evolutionary change.


6 Practices Enabling Leadership


  1. Visualization When various aspects of our service delivery and product development are visualized, we develop a shared understanding of how-our-work-works and the risks associated with it. Without this practice, important information remains hidden in the heads of individuals, or worse, unknown. In order for people to feel safe and show leadership initiative, they need to be equipped with an adequate understanding of their system of work and the practice of Visualization does that - for everyone.

  2. Limiting Work-in-Progress If we don't limit the amount of work in progress, then it's likely that our system and the individuals who are a part of it are going to be overburdened. No slack means no improvement! Without creating space for people to focus their attention on improvement initiatives, it's unlikely that acts of leadership amongst people closest to the work will happen. For leadership to be present at all levels, there must be permission-giving signals. A limited amount of work in progress is one of them.

  3. Managing Flow The practice of managing flow entails a fundamental paradigm-shift from managing and measuring people to managing and measuring work. A system that focuses on smooth flow of work and is not consumed with maximum utilization of people and measuring them against targets is ripe for developing trust and a sense of safety amongst individual workers. Trust and safety are key components in establishing an environment that is prime for widespread leadership.

  4. Making Policies Explicit The policies that we make explicit are the rules for how we work being put on display for everyone to see. Evolving policies are a signal that feedback is taken seriously and suggestions about opportunities for improvement are not a futile endeavour. Taking action on feedback and incorporating it into the system of work acts as a motivator for inspiring leadership amongst workers.

  5. Implementing Feedback Loops If you want to provoke acts of leadership amongst everyone, then well designed reflection mechanisms must be in place. They must adequately inform individuals looking to take responsibility and action the knowledge acquired. Don't expect to develop a culture of ubiquitous leadership without appropriate feedback loops.

  6. Improving Collaboratively and Evolving Experimentally Limiting leadership to top-down command-and-control style management is not a recipe for a healthy approach to management. Robust leadership requires participation from line-level workers, to middle-management, to executives. Collaboration needs to be coupled with an approach to work that is evolutionary and experimental in a context where it's permitted to take risks and a degree of failure is tolerated in the spirit of improvement and innovation.


Theses 6 practices of the Kanban Method are pillars that bolster a culture where leadership is not limited to those in senior management. This leadership lens applied to the core practices will help you understand how to frame them in such as way as to make it an accessible activity to anyone who is interested in positively influencing their organization.

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