Going Agile has more or less become the norm these days. As it's almost been 20 years since the release of the Agile manifesto, many teams have already adopted its values and principles. However, that's only one side of the coin - the team side. When talking about the broader, organizational side, things are a little bit different.
Applying Agile on the team-level gives results, but they are often limited to a single team's improved performance. Especially in large businesses, that might turn out to be ineffective if all other organizational structures keep their traditional way of operating. After all, companies are systems and not merely the collection of teams. Or to use the words of Dr. Russel Ackoff:
“A system is never the sum of its parts. It is the product of the interaction of its parts.”
That is why scaling Agile is the path to achieving real business efficiency to the full potential of your company. In fact, given today's highly volatile business environment, organizations are beginning to see this as a necessary step for their long-term survivability.
What is Agile at Scale?
Scaling Agile is about taking the Agile mindset with its principles and practices beyond the team level and applying it across the organization. This involves a cultural change and a global transformation of a company toward a more value-focused business environment. The goal is to create a symbiosis between all organizational structures and effectively respond to emerging changes or risks on the market.
Achieving agility at scale is much easier said than done. Companies need to have a well-oiled system in place to bring Agile practices across multiple teams and to the highest portfolio and strategic layers. To do that in practice, many of them typically turn to a specific scaling framework and abide by its rules.
While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it could turn out to be very cumbersome and expensive in the long run. That's why we would like to introduce you to an alternative way of scaling Agile across the organization - the Kanban way.
The Data-Driven & Humane Approach to Scaled Agile
When applying an Agile scaling framework, there is usually a big focus on following strict guidelines and revolutionizing your processes to make them better. This often contributes to resistance and chaos that many organizations might fail to deal with. As a result, they revert back to their old way of operating, abandoning the idea of bringing agility on a global level.
In contrast, Kanban offers an evolutionary path to agility, where you don't disrupt your current processes and roles. It addresses the human need for respect and focuses on data-driven decision making.
That's why, to have a stable starting point, you keep what has been working for you so far and then gradually evolve from there through continuous improvement. This is done with the help of Kanban’s practices such as visualization, limiting work in progress, implementing feedback loops, making policies explicit, and managing flow.
In fact, when starting with Kanban, managers believe that those practices are predominantly applicable to the team level to increase efficiency. The reality is that they can be implemented with the same, if not higher, rate of success across the entire organization. With the introduction of multiple Kanban boards, for example, managers can build connected value streams and focus on optimizing the whole rather than only separate local flaws.
The question is, how all of this can be brought to life? Let us show you how you can apply Kanban to scale Agile in practice.
Scaling Agile with Kanban in Practice
When using Kanban to scale Agile, your primary focus should be on figuring out how you create customer value from the beginning to end. Then you should connect and visualize this entire process to unhide cross-dependencies and optimization potential in your system.
You also need to establish Kanban systems on all levels to ensure workflow stability and improve predictability. Another critical step is introducing regular cadences to plan and coordinate the release of value within the entire structure.
Connecting Strategy to Operations with Interconnected Kanban Boards
Did you know that an estimated 67% of all well-polished strategic initiatives fail due to their poor implementation? Some common reasons for the high failure rate include huge gaps between strategy and operations and lack of organizational transparency.
That's why the first step to scaling Agility on a global level is to have a highly-refined structure in place, tieing up all your value streams together. In practice, this can happen with the introduction of interconnected Kanban boards. You can use them to visualize all the organization segments, going from the highest strategic level down to the team level or vice versa.
For example, you can build a Master Kanban Board or a dedicated workflow within it that represents your company's business objectives. There, your aim should be to visualize your organization's high-level strategic initiatives and regularly revisit them to make sure you are moving in the right direction.
Senior managers can then engage in collaborative discussions, refine and break down those initiatives into a portfolio of separate projects that support the high-level vision. In turn, those projects can be further broken down into smaller deliverables (depending on their size) or directly linked to the specific teams responsible for their execution. To make this entire structure possible, you can use related Kanban boards interlinked based on their hierarchy (ex. Strategy-Portfolio/Program-Project-Team).
Progressive elaboration on the team level
Once you have the initial "coarse-grained" plans on the portfolio/project level, you should progressively refine them. In other words, look to add more details in the course of the project rather than trying to pre-plan everything from the very beginning. In Kanbanize, we do this inside separate Kanban boards on the team level where team members visualize their specific workflows.
Here, the idea is to break down the project or its multiple deliverables into the smallest measure of detail - the tasks and then track their flow throughout the process. This is where the team collaboratively determines what to execute next and progressively pulls new work as previous tasks are getting done. As a result, team leaders or managers in Kanban spend their time uncovering bottlenecks and optimizing process efficiency rather than maximizing capacity utilization.
Using this entire structure of interconnected Kanban boards can help you translate your vision into practice and connect high-level objectives to their day-to-day execution. As a result, you will build transparency across the organization and be one step closer to scaling agility.
Scaling Agile with Kanban Systems on All Levels
Transparency alone brings a lot of improvement to daily operations. However, it is not the ending point when scaling Agile. That's because the main purpose of scaled Agile is to create synchronization between all organizational layers so that everybody is working on the right thing at the right time. That's why apart from merely visualizing all work activities, you also need to ensure that there is a Kanban system in place - not just on the team level but across the whole company too.
Limiting WIP on a global level
Building a Kanban system on all organizational levels requires a system thinking approach. To achieve that, one of the first steps is to limit WIP (Work In Progress) on a global level. It means limiting the number of strategic initiatives and projects (it could be a portfolio of products) that are in progress in your organizational system.
This allows senior managers to ensure that what comes from a global position as a top priority will always be worked on by the teams and finished as soon as possible.
Furthermore, you also need to manage your entire organization's flow to transform your operations into a complete value delivery system. Apart from limiting WIP, this entails introducing commitment points, blocking work on a global level (in case larger issues appear), and measuring metrics such as lead and cycle time.
Introducing commitment points
Applying commitment points on a project/portfolio level is an excellent practice for managing global flow. On the Master Kanban board, you can visualize the validation process of a project and the point in the system when it's ready for execution by the teams. This creates a shared understanding of how a project goes from concept to fruition and helps you organize its final customer delivery.
Tracking & measuring metrics
Tracking metrics is another fundamental part of building a Kanban system.
Measuring lead, cycle time, and throughput on a strategic or project level (apart from just separate work items on the team level) gives you the tools to analyze your system as a whole and look for ways to improve it.
With the introduction of Monte Carlo simulations, for example, you can take a probabilistic planning approach to projects or high-level strategic initiatives. Instead of estimating them based on your gut feeling, you will be able to forecast your delivery dates with greater certainty.
Building connected Kanban systems will contribute to the creation of Flow across your entire organizational structure. This will result in the delivery of superior products or services to the market and flexibility to satisfy your changing customer's needs.
Coordinating and Planning Work
Another important point when scaling Agile across the organization is coordinating and planning the work on a global level. The way to do this with Kanban is through the application of regular Kanban cadences.
In general, those are meetings for aligning business communication that can help you regularly plan, review, and sync work progress to retain agility and adapt to changes whenever necessary. The Kanban cadences, just like Kanban's practices, are applicable both on the team and strategic levels in the organization.
Project stand-up meetings
For example, the Daily meeting is very popular on the team level, where team members stand up in front of a board and sync their progress. This cadence can be scaled up so that every team sends a delegate to a broader project stand-up meeting (involving multiple teams) where the entire project progress is discussed. The idea here is to sync progress on a higher level and discuss dependencies between teams and visualize them on the multiple team Kanban boards.
The Operations Review, on the other hand, is the cadence that takes a holistic view of the performance of all internal teams inside the organization. This is the time when team leaders, functional or mid-level managers come together to look for improvements in the organizational operations as a whole and discuss optimizations in the entire flow of value throughout the system.
Strategy review cadence
In addition to that, you can engage in regular Strategy Review cadences at the top level in the organization. There, the goal is to align progress towards meeting strategic goals as well as plan new ones. Our managerial staff at Kanbanize, for example, meets every week around the Management/Strategic Kanban board to discuss the progress of the defined strategic initiatives. They aim to make sure that we are still doing the right things, and if necessary, adapt to changes and quickly shift the direction of the entire company.
The Kanban cadences can keep you aligned towards the most critical work that you need to do now and the bigger picture inside your company. As a result, you will improve collaboration between all organizational layers and more frequently deliver value to your end customers.
The Necessity of Scaling Agile
While applying Agile practices locally was seen as revolutionary just a few years ago, today's volatile business environment asks for a scaled approach to agility. Companies need to create transparency in their processes by building connected systems and optimizing them for efficiency.
This way, they will bridge the gap between strategy and execution, improve collaboration, quickly shift direction when necessary, and increase the predictability of project delivery. The result will be the creation of superior value to the end customers all the time.
Otherwise, organizations risk becoming unable to promptly respond to fast-changing market conditions, which endangers their long-term survivability. That's why bringing Agile at scale should be seen as a necessity these days, rather than just a luxury.