I worked with a group last week to help them get started with kanban, as I do many weeks. As we moved into the last stages of the class we were at the point where we’ve articulated the work they do, how they do it, what the constraints and policies are in their day to day, laid out the columns they’ll use to represent that work… all the good things that happen when you design a kanban system. As is pretty typical at this point, the question arose “How do we choose our limits?”
I started into my typical list of the different ways of limiting. I shared how it works in manufacturing, taking the ratios of work time to each other. I revisited the idea of focus and talked about avatar limits and not having more than one or two items in the system per person. I talked about the need to smooth flow, and how the various column limits will change once you achieve a reasonable flow through your system. I even talked about the “pull it out of your experience” approach. Then I realized… all of these missed the point.
It’s not about “choosing our limits,” it’s about “choosing our limits.” It’s about the choice being a choice, fully embraced by the team doing the work. It’s about a team inspecting its own work, accepting the need to constrain themselves, and respecting that constraint.
With this realization, my advice became “Pick something that’s actually a constraint, something that encourages you to work a little differently, but doesn’t prevent you from delivering how you deliver today. Get in the habit of respecting the limits, but recognize that whatever you pick today will be wrong in three months. There will be a time when the specific choices make an impact on your flow and help you shine light on impediments, but that’s not now. Right now, learn to focus on finishing work instead of starting new work, and use the limit to help you achieve that focus.”
The self-discipline to limit behavior while standing up for what one believes is among the attributes that I respect most in people. Why should I respect it any less in a team?