Leadership in Kanban

A true leader is one who designs the cathedral and the shares the vision that inspires others to build it.

Jan Carlzon – Moments of Truth

Leadership is a Foundation Principle of the Kanban Method in that it should – “Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization – from individual contributor to senior management”.

Real leadership isn’t about a title or authority it’s about inspiring others to bring out the best in themselves. Leadership is about communication, learning, influence, empathy, courage and respect (more on respect later).

Kanban allows nature leaders to emerge at the right time. Kanban allows leadership to be shared amongst members of the team, depending on the obstacle being addressed.

How does this work?

Because the work of the team is visible, it allows anyone in the team with an idea, observation or thought to bring it to the table. The Kanban Method encourages Kaizen (改善) or continuous improvement at many levels. That means ideas can be shared through many regular feedback loops – starting daily with the stand-up. (Actually, they can be shared at any point as we will see below with the solving of blockers.)

I’ve spoken a lot about WIP Limits, but they also encourage leadership. Take a scenario where the testing work is blocking newly developed features from moving from Development to Test. The team has to work together to overcome the obstacle – the easy answer might be the Developers help out the Testers or it could be more complicated.

Through their day to day interactions the team learns how each other works, and with their respect (that’s an upcoming next topic) of each other, they can use this knowledge to build a better outcome. This process allows natural leaders with the right skills at the right time to emerge. Kanban enables the process to happen organically without the need for fancy titles.

All this doesn’t make the role of leadership any easier it just allows leaders from all levels of the organisation to participate.

Kanban accelerates change in work practices, culture and overall team performance – without a manager having to dictate what happens.

Where do managers fit within the Kanban Method?

There is no “right” answer in my eyes. The method calls for two roles to be played by people in the team Service Request Manager and a Service Delivery Manager. The first is responsible for understanding the needs of the customer and selecting work items. The second is responsible for the flow through the system. The manager could take one of these roles or take no part in the day to day running of the process.

As I’ve said before I’ve ended up doing more craft to help build and maintain a teams’ board than actual “management”.

Whatever the team manager is doing, they really should be a servant leader focusing on the needs of the team before their your own.

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