Kanban: When People Get Bored of Their Boards

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Since 2016, I saw many Kanban boards popping up in every company I was working at. Kanban is still a trend, and it seems to have evolved into what Scrum used to be in the years from 2002 until 2010: the one cool thing that solves all our problems.

I have to say: I like Kanban! Kanban is a great methodology offering practices, tools, and principles for “successful evolutionary change”[1]. Considering the Theory of Constraints[2] and Little’s Law[3], one must admit that the application of Kanban makes sense in many cases. By limiting work in progress, Kanban uncovers many problems in our processes and the way we work.

If you consider it from a systems theory perspective, it uncovers problems that exist in our systems. Kanban also encourages us to focus on the outcome rather than pure output or ‘just delivering features.’ In that way, it helps us to produce not only good products but real customer value.[4] So why do people get bored or even annoyed by their boards? To illustrate this, we may start by understanding what happens when we blame a tool.

The Comfort of “Lay Blame”

I have often heard various people of different companies saying, “for us, Kanban failed,” “nobody cares about WiP limits here,” and so on. When we look at The Responsibility Process by Christopher Avery, by saying that Kanban failed, we are at the deficient level of Laying Blame.

“The Responsibility Process” by Christopher Avery, see Responsibility.com

When we blame our boards, we make our Kanban boards responsible for our own failure. We blame them for not solving our problems. But practices, tools, and principles alone cannot solve our problems! It’s always us who solve problems — the people who stand in front of their Kanban boards.

From that point of view, it is not Kanban or the particular Kanban board that failed or that made us fail. It is ourselves who failed, as a single individual or as a group or organization. Kanban is explicitly meant to be a methodology providing practices, tools, and principles that help us to uncover and solve our problems. And solving our problems is our responsibility. Responsibility cannot be transferred to tools, practices, and principles. It means that we must take responsibility for ourselves. Christopher Avery put it brilliantly as follows:

It struck me that part of our cultural trance is that individuals do not feel responsible for the quality of their experience at work. They feel “at effect” rather than “at cause”.

Christopher Avery, The Responsibility Process

This is the key to understanding why people or organizations get bored of their boards over time: people transfer responsibility to their tools and start feeling at effect, not at cause. They start blaming their boards, and soon they get the feeling that the tool failed.

Since this article is about Kanban, one may recognize that this whole article could also be applied to Scrum, Extreme Programming, or Agile as a whole — or whatever tool or method you want. However, I want to keep the focus on Kanban, so let us concentrate on the four principles of Kanban and see how this leads us to the role of leadership for preventing the blaming of tools.

The Four Principles of Kanban

The four principles of Kanban are in short:

  1. Start with what you do now.
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.
  3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & titles.
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization.

You probably started with what you had, and you probably respected the current processes, etc. That’s easy. So let us focus on the difficult parts — the second and fourth principle. These two principles require us to change our behavior. And even worse, it requires creating a new culture inside our organization.

“Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.”

Really? Did we explicitly agree on incremental, evolutionary change when we set up our Kanban board or started our latest Kanban initiative? Most likely not. And that is the problem.

Keep in mind, to agree does not mean that one of our leaders or one of our agile or Kanban coaches says “do this!” or “we do evolutionary change now!” The intention behind it might be good, but it is most likely not to establish a continuous improvement mindset where everyone involved welcomes change.

The Agile Onion, illustrated below, helps us to understand the situation. Considering the layers, it becomes clear that the Kanban methodology consists of practices, tools, and principles. But a deep agreement of all involved people requires the acceptance of values and a certain mindset.

The Agile Onion” by Simon Powers, see his article What is Agile?

Leaders may introduce tools and practices using the managerial function of directing — which can be seen as command and control. Still, when it comes to principles, it always requires a structural and cultural change. This is the only way an organization can build a mindset on all involved individuals that supports the established practices and tools.

The problem is, systems theory tells us that building a certain mindset or establishing a culture is not the easiest thing to do: you cannot simply change a system to a new desired status quo. Directing, command and control, or rational appeals will not help us here — or even worse, they might affect the opposite direction, as described in my article Leadership: The Three Traps of the Newtonian Mindset. So let’s see what leadership has to do with it.

“Encourage acts of leadership at all levels of your organization.”

On the one hand, with this principle, we have the same situation as with evolutionary change: an appeal-like “lead on all levels — now!” will not help here. On the other hand, this principle addresses leadership directly.

This is one aspect the founders of Kanban identified, which includes that the implementation of Kanban needs a certain culture that supports its practices. With this principle, Kanban tells us that leadership is the key to establish a culture that values WiP limits, flow, continuous improvement, and evolutionary change. And this is why we must take a closer look at what leadership means in the context of a Kanban implementation.

Kanban and the Role of Leadership

Leadership starts with a feeling of Responsibility for something larger than you, thus it calls on you to attract others to the opportunity, situation, or problem to effectively address it.

Christopher Avery, The Responsibility Process

The above quote implies that leadership is all about taking responsibility. Not only taking responsibility for the big manager above us but rather on all levels. It puts us back to where we are coming from — the fourth principle of Kanban: “encourage acts of leadership at all levels of your organization.” The problem when it comes to taking responsibility is that it needs discipline. Something which is often forgotten when it comes to Agile or Lean-Agile software development.[5]

Responsibility and discipline go hand in hand. But what happens if we do not value discipline or other values which are important to build a certain culture? This is a problem, so let’s take a moment and talk about what the term value means in the context of motivation theory. For example, the motivation theory by Steven Reiss. It describes 16 basic desires which determine our behavior, and each of these desires defines what each of us values.

Intermezzo: Self-Hugging versus The Responsibility Process and Leadership

Self-hugging is the natural tendency to think that our values are best. Not just for us, but potentially for everyone.

Steven Reiss, The Normal Personality

The statement by Christopher Avery from the above section is an appeal: “Take responsibility!” Again, we have the problem of establishing leadership by placing an appeal — a bad idea.

Most of the time, we respond to such appeals with: “Yeah, next please.” At this point, Christopher Avery may also walk into the trap of self-hugging. The Responsibility Process may work for him because he values certain things — e. g. discipline — and because he is motivated by certain basic desires — e. g. order and power. But this does not mean that others share his values and/or are motivated by the same basic desires.

On the other hand — and now it comes to taking responsibility — leadership research shows dramatically that leadership is one of the most important factors in changing or influencing a system.[6] And yes, leadership is ultimately about taking responsibility, the way Christopher Avery described it. However, take a look at this quote from systems thinking perspective on the role of leadership.

A leader can make that land and those factories and people play a different game with new rules, or can direct the play toward a new purpose.

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

The interesting thing about this quote is that each system has a purpose. And leaders can change that purpose. The brutal fact is that somebody has to take responsibility to change the purpose of our system. Otherwise, nothing will happen! In other words, we can create a culture where people align on certain values by using leadership. These values (should) be based on the leader’s vision, and they bring people to the point where they build a certain mindset to follow this vision. This mindset lets them behave or act in certain ways to create a certain culture , which hopefully aligns with the leader’s vision.

Bringing this discussion on self-hugging and leadership to an end shows that self-hugging may be an argument against appeals for taking responsibility and active leadership. But if we think further, we find that self-hugging is the exact reason why we need leadership. Because self-hugging lets people trust their own values, we need leadership to align people on common values to create a common culture and follow a given vision. This culture may enable those people to implement Kanban on a high maturity level. This leads exactly to what David J. Anderson — the founder of the Kanban movement — says.

[…] your organizational maturity will always be limited by your leadership maturity.

Compare David J. Anderson’s LKCE18 keynote at 4m30s

David J. Anderson continues to describe that this also applies to the implementation of Kanban. He describes high maturity leadership as social engineering, which means aligning people on certain values which are not originally theirs — and here we are! However, the Agile Onion shows us the layer Values, too, by saying that values require a cultural change. So the Agile Onion is perfectly in line with Anderson’s argumentation; it just takes the perspective from the opposite direction.

Let us now dive into what leadership means in particular.

Acts of Leadership

As we have seen before, whatever reason motivates people, the leader’s task is to give direction by aligning these people on certain values that support the leader’s vision. To do so, leaders perform acts of leadership that can be seen as ways to influence people on what they value.

It means:

  1. Leaders must have a clear vision and provide this vision in a comprehensible way to their followers.
  2. Leaders must define values which interdependent base on their vision and support it.
  3. Based on the values, leaders must perform acts of leadership to align people on the given values to follow the provided vision.

Because we are talking about Kanban in this article, I took the four acts of leadership defined within the Kanban Maturity Model — which I consider being complete:

  • Directing
    Tell people what you as a leader want and tell your followers what to do.
  • Leading by Example
    Doing things in ways, you want others to.
  • Signaling
    Indirectly showing what you value as a leader. E. g., as a leader, you can use extrinsic rewards to show what “turns the needle.”
  • Inspire
    Indicate a gap and create space for others to solve.

However, following my previous articles about leadership, we must keep one important statement in mind: our leadership style should always address people so that they feel intrinsically motivated. This is the basic insight behind Authentic Transformational Leadership because a leader can only sustainably alter a system if they stay authentic while doing so.

Use Directing Carefully

Especially in directing, we learned that directing people in a command and control style may be an inadequate approach to motivate people intrinsically. However, leaders must make clear what the general rules of the boundaries within an organization are. Leaders may use directing as an act of leadership because clarity on boundaries provides safety , motivating people indirectly.

By directing, leaders must always be aware of not doing micro-management or setting boundaries too tight. As McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y already show in the 1960s, such behavior eliminates intrinsic motivation quite fast and leads to passive behavior. The following quote in the context of the Self-Determination Theory makes this more clear.

To be intrinsically motivated people need to perceive themselves as competent and autonomous; they need to feel that they are effective and self-determining.

Edward L. Deci, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation

Leading by Example is Always a Good Idea

We should keep in mind a general statement: leading by example is always worth the effort. As described in my previous articles about leadership, it is essential to be authentic. Otherwise, people won’t accept a leader as a role model, and the effect may be contrary to the leader’s intentions. Because of this, leaders must be self-aware about their inner values. Leaders can only act authentically if they stay consistent with their own values. However, let’s take a look at the following quote.

The fastest way to elevate responsibility in anyone or any group is to demonstrate it yourself–demonstrate your power and ability to create, choose, and attract, both the good and the bad.

Christopher Avery, The Responsibility Process

Another interesting quote in this context comes from systems thinker Donella H. Meadows.

Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Keeping in mind that leaders must be authentic, we can take this for granted. However, it also clarifies that leadership should be left to people who are at peace with themselves and who pursue honorable goals. A short side note: honor is also one of the 16 basic desires defined by Steven Reiss.

Signaling Can Be Difficult

When talking about extrinsic rewards, we also must be careful how we apply these rewards. The Self-Determination Theory tells us the following.

[…] people frequently interpret rewards as controls, as means of pressuring them to behave in particular ways. But it would seem that under the right circumstances people might experience rewards simply as an acknowledgment by another that they have done well at something.

Edward L. Deci, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation

Well, this sounds quite relatable. The next quote makes it a little bit more complicated.

When rewards were given with a controlling style, they had a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation and they left people feeling more pressured and less interested.

Edward L. Deci, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation

To complete the picture, extrinsic rewards can negatively affect people when there is a fixed system behind the rewards (like “do action A, get reward B”). Research shows that people see through those systems quite fast. The effect is that people start focusing on getting the reward but lose interest in performing the required action. This leads to passive behavior and low quality of output. In other words, such behavior reduces the outcome.

According to this, it is essential to think about how to apply extrinsic motivators. And the only advice I can give you is: be careful with that!

Inspire People — but Don’t Overdo It

In regards to inspiration, it becomes quite clear why good leadership requires a clear vision. It is tough when we try to inspire people without having a clear and comprehensible vision. Instead, when we as leaders have a strong vision which we really believe in, we have made the first step towards authenticity. Besides that, one can also look at what Transformational Leadership defines with the two of its four dimensions inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation.

However, when overdoing the inspiration of followers, the leader does not appear authentic. As we have learned from Authentic Leadership, acting artificially inspirational may be contrary to the intended goals.

Some Takeaways

The main reason why we get bored of our boards is that the implementation of Kanban not only requires a technical understanding of Kanban. It also requires a culture that respects Kanban’s four principles and its practices. So instead of blaming our Kanban initiative — or change initiative in general — we catch ourselves, and we may take a look at the system that surrounds us to find the root cause of our current problems. We might discover that we do not have a culture that enables us to really implement the four principles and the six practices of Kanban. Then we have to go further and find the root causes of that.

One main factor in enabling a Kanban-friendly culture is leadership — on all levels. As leaders, we may take responsibility by providing a clear vision and aligning people with consistent values. Our vision shouldn’t be ‘reach Kanban maturity level 6’ or ‘produce more features.’ Rather we may strive for higher goals like focusing on the outcome.

If we as leaders establish a culture of outcome rather than pure output, ideas of Kanban like limiting the work in the process make sense without any further explanation. In such an environment, the implementation of Kanban may happen by itself — because the tool fits our vision and values — which leaders mainly provide. In this case, the implementation of Kanban might also be a positive reinforcing feedback loop.


[1] In accordance to the book title Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business by David J. Anderson.

[2] Learn more about the Theory of Constraints at Wikipedia.

[3] Learn more about Little’s Law at Wikipedia.

[4] See the book Good to Great to see the difference and why it matters.

[5] The Discipline of Agile, Scott W. Ambler, one of the signers of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Also, please read my article Competence and Discipline: the Pillars of Excellence.

[6] E. g., compare “Avolio, B. J., Bass, B. M., & Jung, D. I. (1999). Re-examining the components of transformational and transactional leadership using the Multifactor Leadership. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 72(4), 441–462” or “Rowe, W. G. (2001). Creating wealth in organizations: The role of strategic leadership. The Academy of Management Executive, 15(1), 81–94”.

Book recommendations

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t
Jim Collins

Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business
David J. Anderson

Kanban Maturity Model: Evolving Fit-For-Purpose Organizations
David J. Anderson, Teodora Bozheva

The Responsibility Process: Unlocking Your Natural Ability to Live and Lead with Power
Christopher Avery

The Normal Personality: A New Way of Thinking About People
Steven Reiss

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation
Edward L. Deci

Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella H. Meadows

Feedback: Wie Rückkopplung unser Leben bestimmt und Natur, Technik, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft beherrscht
Jürgen Beetz



War creates trauma creates war.

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