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Who is the Kanban Board for?

I realize it should probably be "For Whom is the Kanban Board," but that sounded a little too Hemingway.

Like anything, it would be a mistake to make laws that fit every single situation, but in general, any given Kanban board is primarily for the people doing the work represented on the board and only secondarily for other interested parties (like standups).  This is because, in general, the purpose of a Kanban board is to make work visible and assist in managing its flow.  Let me put this in a slightly different way:

Purpose of a Kanban Board

  1. Make work visible

  2. Manage workflow

Not the Purpose of a Kanban Board

  1. Reporting tool

  2. Bug tracking

  3. Hand-off mechanism for items between silos

  4. DevOps checklist

  5. Project management tool

  6. A way to keep an eye on everyone and make sure nobody is slacking off

While it is possible that a Kanban board might provide some insight or value into the above items (it's also possible to make a board specifically for one of those purposes), that's not its primary purpose in most cases.

I watch a lot of football (the American variety, not to be confused with what everyone else in the world calls "football"), and in every game, there's a small group of people on the sidelines called the chain crew.  The chain crew has a couple of large signal posts with the eponymous chain connecting them.  These posts travel up and down the field and assist the players and referees in things like determining the line of scrimmage, figuring out if a team got a first down, where the next ten yards are, and so on.

As a watcher of football, the positions of these posts are of interest to me because I also want to know things like how much further a team has to go for a first down, did they make it on that last drive, etc.  However, the chain crew is not primarily for me.  If I complained to the NFL that the chains were too hard for me to see, or that the whole system was unclear to me, they probably wouldn't care all that much.  While the NFL might change, say, they format of their displays during a broadcast to suit viewers, they probably aren't going to change the chain crew just because viewers might ask for that.  The chain crew serves referees and players, and those are the people who are in the best position to decide if the chain crew methodology needs changing in some way.  It primarily serves the players on the field, not the observers, not teams who aren't playing, not the people who mow the grass between games, not the owners, not the statisticians, not the managers, etc., although any of those people might be interested in where those chains are at any given point.

In the same way, a Kanban board serves the players and referees on the field.  It exists to help play the game in the most efficient manner possible.  The people actually playing the game need that tool; it is for them.  If they want to change it, it should be changed.  If someone else wants to change it, their input is useful, but it's not their call.  For example, if a project manager has a hard time understanding a development team's board, it's completely valid for that PM to communicate that, and perhaps in that input are some insights the team could use for structuring their board.

However, it would be silly to change the board just because it was difficult for the PM to interpret.  It would be like the NFL changing the chain crew system because a team owner thought the bright, orange colors would confuse people since they're also used for safety gear.  The Kanban board does not exist for the project manager; it exists for the team doing the work to get the work done as efficiently as possible.  What might be a better solution would be for the PM to create her own board for project management purposes.

For smaller operations, the lines might be blurrier (assuming blurrier is a word).  Sometimes, one board can capture the entirety of an organization's value stream at a level that is equally useful for everyone.  In those cases, if part of your organization has trouble with The Board, then you need to deal with that.  In that case, the board exists for literally every individual.  Of course, if your operation is small enough to pull off the One True Board, then you probably don't have a layer of management that isn't directly involved in executing on the work.

More commonly, though, organizations have teams that execute on their work items, and while higher level Kanban boards can (and should) exist, keep in mind that their primary purpose is workflow management.  Anytime you want to add something, remove something, or move something on the board, you should be able to answer yes to the following questions:

  • Am I responsible for executing on what this item represents?

  • Will doing this help us get the work done more efficiently?

If your answer is no to one or both of those questions, consider yourself in the category of someone who might have valuable input, but ultimately, the board is not for you and your concerns are not the primary reasons to make changes to it.

What should you do if you find a team's Kanban board isn't helping you with your jobs (I'm looking at you, project managers)?  My suggestion: make your own board.  The different ways Kanban boards can serve different levels of the organization will be the focus of a later article.

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