Kanban Canvas User Guide

An initial draft of a brief guide to how I use the Kanban Canvas.

Generally, I use the canvas as the core of a two day workshop, during which I use it to facilitate the collaborative co-creation of a kanban system. The canvas becomes a single, simple artefact which captures a common understanding of how a system is designed, and why it is designed the way it is.


First we begin with understanding the scope and purpose of the System.
  1. I'm looking to discover key people, problems, frustrations, boundaries and interfaces. I like to get participants to tell their story leading up to the present day, explaining why they are in a room together designing a kanban system.
The output in this section is one or more a simple narratives capturing the essential system elements and interactions.


Next, we need to be able to assess whether any changes we make are improving or deteriorating the systems fitness for purpose. The goal is to be able to describe the general direction we want to go in, without identifying any specific outcomes or end states.
  1. We explore various ways we might want the story to end - and what endings might we want to avoid. I ask participants to imagine impossibly good and bad endings - utopian and dystopian futures - using the three Impacts of Flow, Value and Potential to help them look from different perspectives. They are not distinct impacts, but more like triads, where elements of all three could be involved. This generates healthy conversations about how the potential futures relate to the different impacts.
The output across these three sections is a set up potential endings, placed relative to where they have most resonance. Colour coding is used to distinguish between the utopian (green) and dystopian (red) futures.


Now we have a good understanding of the recent past and desired future direction, we can begin looking at how we can start interacting with the system to make interventions which we hope will have a positive impact.
  1. To really understand how we can make effective change, we first need to Study the context. There are 3 areas that I find it useful to study; the customer or stakeholder, the work demand that comes from them, and the way that demand is processed. We usually start by looking at demand, and the group applies concepts such as value and failure demand, the CORE Profile and Classes of Service. Then we'll explore where that work comes from with a technique such as Empathy Mapping, and how that work is processed with a variation of Value Stream Mapping focussing on the flow of information and its discovery.
The output in this section is a set of sticky notes capturing a summary of customer/stakeholder needs, demand classifications and classes of service, and primary workflow states, transitions or delays.

  1. Once we have a good common understanding of the existing context, then we can Share it by visualising our knowledge on a kanban board. First I ask the group to discuss and agree which information is most relevant and important for them to share - trying to show everything will just create noise. Then I introduce the Token, Inscription, Placement concept as a way of thinking about board design patterns, and the group comes up with approaches to visualise their important information.
The output in this section is a set of mappings between each important informational dimension to be visualised, and the visualisation technique to be used.

  1. The next step is to begin to Stabilise the current system by introducing explicit policies. These policies will form flexible boundaries to contain the work. Boundaries which are too hard and fixed will lead to rigid bureaucracy, while boundaries which are too loose will lead to chaos. I introduce Work In Process limits as a core policy type, and we explore the various strategies and techniques for introducing and setting WIP limits. Then the group brainstorms some simple quality checklists to agree how and when work should progress across the board. These simple, standard work definitions become the baseline for future improvements.
The output in this section is a set of decisions regarding basic WIP limit strategies and allocations, and bullet points for initial entry/exit criteria on the board.

  1. As a system is put in place and evolves, we need a way to Sense its capability in order to assess its fitness for purpose. The two primary means for this are measures and meetings. First, groups decide which outcomes they hope will have a positive impact, typically selecting from productivity, reliability, responsiveness, quality, customer satisfaction and employee engagement. Metrics are discussed and defined for these outcomes, considering the anticipated behaviour and consequences, and potential tradeoffs with other outcomes. Then groups decide what meetings and cadences they would like to use to give them an ongoing rhythm for assessing capability and progress.
The output in this section is a set of simple metrics definitions, and a list of meetings and respective cadences.

  1. Finally, the evolutionary potential of the system is explored by beginning a Search for alternative designs. Given everything that has been discussed so far, the groups begins to define small experiments that could be run on possible changes. Each experiment has a hypothesis, a rationale, measures to both validate and falsify, and a mechanism for ensuring safety and reversibility.
The output in this section is a set of initial simple experiment definitions which can be run.

All of this is done in a very collaborative way, using various facilitation techniques to ensure everyone is able to contribute, different opinions are heard, and consensus is reached. At this point, the group is able to begin learning, evolving and improving their kanban system using the canvas as a basis.