Is Lean Kanban a Viable Enterprise Agile Framework?

By Doug Rose

Lean and Kanban are useful tools for minimizing waste and maximizing workflow, but they may not serve as a suitable replacement for a bona fide enterprise agile framework, such as SAFe or LeSS. Lean and Kanban are easy to implement and may provide a good start for smaller organizations, but they have too many shortcomings, including the following:

  • No guidance for organization change: Without a change in organization and in leadership’s mindset, teams often fight a losing battle against management intrusion.
  • Little guidance for cultural change: Lean and Kanban principles provide some guidance for cultural change in terms of committing to continuous change, respecting people, building in quality, and embracing acts of leadership at all levels, but without a more structured framework to support those principles, it doesn’t go far enough, especially in large organizations.
  • Little enthusiasm for change: The idea of making practical incremental improvements may be realistic, but it doesn’t have people springing out of bed in the morning. Big, bold changes get people excited. They want the organization to dream big and make huge leaps.
  • Poor support for knowledge work: The Kanban board is linear, which makes sense, because it came out of manufacturing. As such, it doesn’t track well with creative endeavors, such as product development, which is rarely linear. In fact, creatives often find Kanban boards monotonous or even boring. However, Kanban can be a useful tool when combined with other frameworks that are more conducive to creativity.
  • Lack of motivational components: Very little in Kanban or Lean motivates teams to work faster, improve their skills and knowledge, or collaborate across teams. Both SAFe and LeSS include sprints to increase the pace of development, whereas Kanban leaves it up to the teams to set their own WIPs and work at their own pace.

Think of Kanban and Lean as tools for improving workflow and reducing waste. Use Lean to trim the fat from your value streams. Use Kanban to help teams manage their workflow, monitor progress, and communicate with one another. But when your goal is to make your organization agile, look for a more robust enterprise agile framework.

Most large organizations need to change from the top down and the bottom up. Employees must be motivated to change the way they work, and managers must buy into fixing the status quo. Lean and Kanban’s focus on improving current processes might shortchange the momentum you need to make big changes.

Many organizations need a major overhaul, including a radical change in the way they think about work. Small, incremental improvements are rarely enough. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” No one would’ve thought that what they really needed was an entirely new form of transportation.