feedback loops

“Just make sure to keep me in the loop, alright?”

How many times have you heard this expression in the organization you work for? And what happens if you end up being “out of the loop” for an important update regarding the product or the project you are working on? 

It’s quite uncomfortable to be put in such a situation. 

We all work in organizations, operating in complex environments, and for all of us to perform well, we need to build a well-designed network of feedback loops, to keep each other in the loop.

As the Agile philosophy has been growing in popularity exponentially, I have to mention that feedback is a central pillar of Agile. Integrating feedback loops into your agile project workflow ensures you will collect fast and frequent feedback from your customers and increases your chances to adapt to emerging changes. 

I also have to mention the role of feedback in Kanban because implementing frequent feedback loops is one of the main principles that makes the method so successfull. In fact, there are series of meetings, nurturing proper communication happening at all levels of your organization. These meetings are called Kanban Cadences, and we will explore their benefits in this blog post.

But first, for the scope of this article, let’s define what feedback loops are.

What are Feedback Loops – Definition

Feedback loops serve as a way to increase productivity in an individual’s performance, project teamwork, or process. In Agile, feedback loops help us regularly identify areas for improvement. Then, when we turn these potential improvements into actionable work items, we can track and address the key challenges we face, related to our product and processes.

Feedback loops help teams to have more coordinated, collaborative, and committed deliverables. They can also encourage more proactive and shared ownership within the team, improved team performance, and agility. 

In general, any feedback loop should have the primary three stages. During the first stage, we capture and store the input – this is the data with which we operate every day. Within the second one, we actually analyze the input, gathered from stage one. Finally, during the last stage, we need to make decisions based on the insights gained from the second stage.

Usually, here comes the fourth stage of the feedback loop – the implementation of the changes we have set forward. And so it continues – a feedback loop after another feedback loop, after another one. And this is how continuous improvement can be easily nurtured within any organization.

Okay, so now that we’ve touched the surface of this topic by defining what feedback loops are, let’s move on and explore their implementation with real industry examples.

How to Implement Feedback Loops the Kanban Way

As we have already explained above, feedback loops should be an integral part of any system striving for high productivity and efficiency. 

The Kanban method helps and encourages us to implement feedback loops of different kinds – review stages in our Kanban workflow, reports and metrics, and a diverse range of visual indicators which provide us with continuous feedback on our work in progress.

In Agile, we often use the mantra “Fail fast, fail often!” which ultimately refers to the idea of getting feedback as early as we can. Especially when we are on the wrong track with our work – it is vital to deliver the right product, or service in the fastest possible time. And feedback loops are built for that. 

First, for better clarity on this topic, let’s see how we can implement feedback loops on a Kanban board. We will give you an example and elaborate on the outcome. 

Implementing feedback loops on a Kanban board

Here is an example of an IT Operations board:

Kanban Board - IT Operations

You can clearly distinguish the three stages of this Kanban board – Requested (to-do), In Progress, and Done. The “Ready to Start” column is the starting point of the workflow. From there, once there is capacity, a new card to the Working column (In-progress stage) will be pulled. The feedback loop on this board is visualized very simply, and the logic is as follows. 

Let’s take the card “PC 19 – virus check” from the “Critical” swimlane and move it to the next column – Working. We have to make sure our PC 19 is free of malware. That’s a potential security breach. Now let`s say that we are ready, we skip the Review stage, and directly moved the card to our done column. 

However, imagine that you made a mistake while checking for viruses and, as no one reviewed the card, the PC is actually infected and important information was stolen. Ouch.

Will you skip the Review phase again? Probably not as it will lead to even more work in the future and end up generating colossal time waste. This is exactly what we try to avoid with feedback loops. If you have gone through the review stage, you would have eliminated the risk and avoided a major security problem. 

Achieve Fast Feedback Loops through Kanban Cadences

But why short loops? Because short loops give us the possibility to receive fast feedback from our customers regarding our product or service, and even faster from our employees. 

In the world of Kanban, feedback loops are implemented as a set of meetings with a different cadence. Now, you may think that implementing seven new meetings in one’s life is in contradiction to what Kanban and Lean teach us about meetings – having too many of them is a waste. 

That’s why the best practice is to integrate these cadences into your already existing meetings if possible. This may sound unrealistic at first, but it’s quite easy to fit two meetings into one when they concern the same team. 

Okay, let’s finally explain which are these seven cadences and how they should be used:

Kanban Cadences

1) Daily Meeting (standup meeting)

The daily meeting is the most frequent one, and it addresses questions like who is working on what, are there any blocked tasks, who needs help, and how we can help. The daily meeting is the internal feedback loop for the team working on a project but is also helpful for stakeholders who are interested in knowing how that project is going and how they can help.

2) Replenishment & Commitment Meeting

In Kanban, we use a pull system, and this system needs tasks in the input queue so that we don’t “starve” it. In the replenishment and commitment meeting, we decide what these tasks should be.

We need to decide which are the most important tasks to feed into our input queue and make sure our team can commit to delivering these tasks. This meeting varies its occurrence. Depending on the context, it could be conducted weekly, bi-weekly, or on an as-needed basis.

3) Delivery Planning Meeting

In this meeting, we carefully plan delivery, depending on the client’s needs. We don’t want to deliver directly to the end customer at random intervals. Often, our clients will appreciate if they can decide how, when, and what will be delivered.

4) Service Delivery Review

In this meeting, we focus on checking the team’s performance against commitments, SLAs (service level agreements), quality, customer-focused metrics, lead time, etc.

5) Operations Review

The operations review is the higher-level view of how the various teams, departments, divisions are collaborating as an organization. It is focused on assuring global flow over local optimizations (improving a part of a system without considering the other parts) and being fit for our customers.

6) Risk Review

A risk review meeting can occur at any level of the organization and can happen with different cadence for different levels.

It is an opportunity to identify risks in advance and take steps to mitigate those risks by assigning a new class of service or proper scheduling, for example.

7) Strategy Review

The strategy review is the highest level meeting and is conducted to ensure that we are moving in the right direction based on our company’s strategic goals and changing market conditions.The meeting is an opportunity to answer if we are still taking the right steps to make sure that our organization and operational mode are fit for our business purpose.

Summary

In general, these are the meetings we conduct in order to implement feedback loops the Kanban way. If you are just starting with the implementation of Agile and feedback loops in your organization, start small. First, conduct your daily meeting and see how your team feels.

Sometimes, speaking your mind in front of others may feel uncomfortable, but this is a crucial step to take if you want your teams to be more proactive, improve its performance, and have fully coordinated and collaborative deliverables.

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