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Kanban Portfolio Management Next Trend Says LeanKit

Written by  Sudheer Raju | 25 August 2011
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When it comes to a tool that's designed with pure Kanban principles in mind and has matured over time, the one product that comes to my mind is LeanKit. Jon Terry, COO of LeanKit has been kind enough to speak to us on the recent partnership with VersionOne, the differentiating factors of LeanKit, Key challenges developing the product, Next Kanban Trends and much more.


About "Jon Terry":

Jon Terry is the Chief Operating Officer of LeanKit. Prior to joining LeanKit, Jon held a number of senior IT positions with hospital-giant HCA and its subsidiary HealthTrust Purchasing Group. During that time he was among those responsible for launching HCA’s widespread adoption of Lean/Agile methods.

Explain the differentiating features of the LeanKit highlighting the critical ones

     Quote startOur board cloning and template library features mean that the best practices developed by a company’s pilot teams can be easily adopted by the rest of the organization. Quote end

At LeanKit, we like to say that we provide ease-of-use to teams and insight to their managers. Our configurable card colors and slew of icons for class-of-service, due dates, blockers, assignee, etc. provide all the instant visual communication of a physical board. Our inline board editor make it as easy to create even the most complex board as it would be to draw it on a whiteboard – and even easier to edit later.

Our board cloning and template library features mean that the best practices developed by a company’s pilot teams can be easily adopted by the rest of the organization. And our Lean metrics are second to none. Team managers can see bottlenecks, cycle time, workload distribution, process efficiency, and process variability – everything they need to stop asking their team for estimates and instead provide their bosses with SLAs based on data not guesses. And executives can see metrics aggregated at the company level via our organization dashboard.

Recent Partnership with VersionOne, Tell us more about it. How is it going to work and how customers would benefit?

We’re really excited to partner with VersionOne on an integrated product offering that can bring advanced kanban to the widest possible audience as quickly as possible.

     Quote startLeanKit will replace the storyboard for VersionOne customers who want to take advantage of our features. Quote end

Essentially, LeanKit will replace the storyboard for V1 customers who want to take advantage of our features. Product managers can use V1s tools for idea management, linking epics to features to stories, roadmapping releases, documenting user stories, etc. Through V1, users will be able to link to a full set of ALM tools: source control, bug tracking, project management, and continuous integration.

But when it comes time to execute, stories and defects will flow automatically onto a fully configurable LeanKit Kanban board. The team can merge that planned, V1-driven workload with other work items that arise unexpectedly and have all their work subject to WIP limits in order to ensure the best possible productivity. Key data elements are synchronized and users can link at any time from a LeanKit card to its V1 parent and vice versa. All the activity on the board will feed LeanKit’s best-of-breed Lean metrics. And when V1-generated work items are complete they will flow back to V1 for full-cycle traceability.

We got a great reception to our demos at Agile 2011 and we’re really excited to get started with our pilot customers!

Scrum and Kanban, What should teams go with. What are influencing factors for such a decision?

We firmly believe that it’s not an either/or choice. Teams need to merge those features of Kanban and Scrum that are best for them. If a team has solid Agile Engineering practices in place - continuous integration, unit test coverage, automated deployment, etc. – then the shortest iteration possible probably makes sense. That DEPLOYMENT may be to a pilot environment because end customers can only absorb change so fast, but it still ensures that work gets as done as possible as quickly as possible. So in that sense, we lean toward Kanban or very short iteration Scrum.

But, we think it also makes a lot of sense to have a rhythm to a team’s operations: backlog reviews and demos with customers, retrospectives, and stand-ups. The regular cycle of work that Scrum brings is great for a team and its customers. People like order and predictability. We think the nice thing about a more Kanban or Scrumban-ish approach is that it allows those cadences to be de-coupled from the deployment cycle.

And whichever way a team decides to work, we definitely think they should make the change gradually. The worst thing they can do is say “We’re throwing out Scrum and going Kanban.” Iterative change is the best approach even when it comes to your own process changes. If Scrum is working well and you want to try Kanban, just update your storyboard with more granularity and apply WIP limits. Evolution not revolution!

What do you see as next enterprise level Kanban Trends and how are you preparing for it?

As the Lean and Agile movement matures, it is having to learn how to handle enterprise level problems. The tough questions are no longer about whether cross-functional teams are good or whether short iterations are better than long projects. Yes and yes! As Lean/Agile scales, executives are struggling with hiring, training, space planning, and, most relevant for us, portfolio management.

     Quote startLeanKit simplifies the challenge of Kanban based Portfolio management with introduction of multi-level Kanban and linked boards.Quote end

There’s a lot of exciting work being done around using Kanban for portfolio management by guys like Dennis Stevens, Mike Cottmeyer, and Alan Shalloway among others. They’ve helped their executive-level customers to see that the cards on a Kanban board can represent any-scale of work item and that WIP (work-in-process) limits are just as important when the cards represent strategic investments as when they represent day-long tasks. And that an enterprise can link their various Kanban boards together as a continuous value stream at different levels of granularity.

What we’re doing to support this is to introduce multi-level Kanban and linked boards. Imagine a LeanKit Kanban board where each card represents a major investment. This is the CIO’s view of the world, displayed on the big touchscreen outside her office.

Now imagine her opening a card to see a lower level of detail about that item, cards for each epic in a project for example, each marketing activity required to sell the new features, each risk the company faces in developing the product. But all those cards aren’t jumbled together on the same sub-board. Instead, she sees a sub-board related to each type of sub-activity and the work items she puts on her sub-board are passed down to the relevant teams’ full Kanban boards. Their boards also contain all the stuff they do on a daily basis that doesn’t flow from the boss’s strategic projects.

She lives in her high-level board and sees just the items relevant to her and they live in their board and see only those items relevant to them. And the speed with which work is flowing through their board is rolled-up to the executive level so she can see the “health” of her overall value stream. Sounds complex, I imagine, but the key is that for each person they are seeing primarily their level of work and it’s still just sticky notes on a whiteboard!

We demoed a first release of these new enterprise features at the LSSC conference in May. We’re polishing them now in preparation for releasing them to beta customers who are working with some of the thought leaders I mentioned. We’re very confident in our technology but we want to be sure we can “package” and explain these features in the best possible way. As any Agilist will tell you, the only way to do that is through customer feedback.

What has been the toughest challenge so far creating such a wonderful product

I think that, like anyone creating software, our toughest challenge is limiting our WIP. We’ve got tons of ideas for how to help our customers by improving our Kanban tool (and introducing completely new products into our LeanKit). And our customers have submitted many, many outstanding suggestions. There’s a very active conversation among them on our support site around which things make sense to tackle first.

So, like anyone else, a combination of excitement and pressure-to-deliver tempts us into biting off more than we can chew. We have to periodically step back and remind ourselves that limiting our WIP will deliver better products faster in the long run. It’s a good thing we built a tool to help us frame these conversations!

How Do You describe your target market

     Quote startAlthough Dev teams find us easy to adopt and ITOps find pure Kanban more natural fit than Scrum, we have Law firms, Construction companies and Universities, Video Production and others as growing portion of our business Quote end

Right now, our biggest customer group is in IT. A lot of that is software development as well as a healthy dose of devops and IT operations. Development teams find us easy to adopt if they are transitioning straight from waterfall project management or as a natural evolution of their Scrum implementation. The IT ops folks find “pure” Kanban a much more natural fit than Scrum. It’s hard to timebox if you have no choice but to respond to a steady stream of critical break-fixes and patches!

Interestingly, for us anyway, a growing portion of our business has nothing to do with IT. We have law firms using us to manage case load, construction companies managing activities on their job sites, universities facilitating academic collaboration, video production companies coordinating filming and post-production, sales and marketing teams visualizing their lead funnel and deal pipeline, and on and on. There turn out to be an awful lot of people out there who benefit from using sticky notes on a whiteboard to visualize their work and then using metrics to improve their processes. We’re very excited by the possibilities.

Sudheer Raju

Sudheer Raju

Founder of ToolsJournal, a technology journal on software tools and services. Sudheer has overall accountability for the webiste product development and is responsible for Sales and Marketing. With a flair to write, Sudheer himself writes for toolsjournal across all journal categories.

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