Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability with Kanban


“Imagine you are on a boat docked in a calm harbor and you want to quickly carry a brim-full cup of water across a stateroom without spilling. Now imagine the same situation but with the boat in rough seas. In harbor, the solution is simple: just walk quickly, but not so quickly that the water spills. At sea, speed is a secondary concern; now the real challenge is to maintain balance on an abruptly pitching floor. The solution now is to find secure handholds and footholds and to flex your knees to absorb the roll of the boat. In harbor, the solution is a simple optimization problem (walk as fast as possible but not too fast); at sea the solution requires you to enhance your ability to absorb disturbance-that is, enhance your resilience against the waves.” From: Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker PhD, and David Salt

Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance while undergoing change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks. Eco-systems exhibit resilience: e.g. the capacity of a forrest to recover from a fire; the human body exhibits resilience: e.g. the capacity to maintain body temperature under varying conditions; as do many other systems.

The current economic, political and ecological climate, requires organizations to exhibit higher degrees of resilience.  They are forced to change their focus from maintaining efficiency of function towards that of maintaining existence of function (as illustrated with the water cup in the opening story). This has been a main driver of change in organizations for the last decade and will remain so for some time.

The concept of resilience is often depicted as a basin of attraction (see figure below). Under normal conditions, the system operates within the basin of attraction. Given enough disturbance the system can be moved beyond the threshold into another basin of attraction – the system has changed identity. In the case of the human body, if we move the body temperature beyond the threshold point (e.g. below 35°C), the human system is moved from the “life” basin of attraction to the “death” basin of attraction. Or in the case of a lake we may have a basin of attraction (the “good” basin of attraction) in which there is clear water and fish, and a “bad” basin of attraction where the lake is filled with algae due to the disturbance by nutrient pollution.

The stability landscape of a system. The basin of attraction define the main resilience parameters: L = Lattitude (how much the system can be changed); R = Resistance (how easy or difficult it is to change the system); Pr = Precariousness (how close the trajectory of the system is to the threshold )

To what degree does a software development, product development or other team exhibit resilience? Under what disturbances will a team lose it’s identity? I.e. when will a team start disintegrating, letting go of it’s normal practices, stop functioning and start trashing? At what point will the team stop feeling like the team? Under which disturbance? And which teams exhibit more resilience than other teams?

Let’s start with the disturbances. Typical disturbances include:

  • interruption of work
  • too much work
  • changing priorities
  • bugs
  • unclear requirements
  • information arriving too late
  • estimates

Many teams are so overwhelmed by these disturbances that their identity is one of firefighting, multi-tasking, and fixing problems. They are operating in a bad basin of attraction that they can not escape from. Resilience capacity is low, as small disturbances can have dramatic effect on the functioning of the team.

Kanban’s evolutionary change process allows teams to climb out of the bad basin of attraction. The Kanban core properties “visualize, limit WIP, manage flow, make policies explicit, collaboratively improve” help teams to build their resilience capacity. Resilience capacity depends on 3 main factors that are all 3 addressed by Kanban’s core properties and principles:

– Variety: the variety that is present/allowed in the system – the system needs variety to deal with the variety in its environment (requisite variety) – Kanban allows variety in the work items within a team and variety in the policies and processes across teams.

– Modularity: a modular system is more resilient than a highly connected system where disturbances freely propagate – Kanban promotes modularity of work within a team and modularity across teams

– Leadership: as humans are part of the systems we are talking about, leadership is required to respond to changing conditions – Acts of leadership are an integral part of Kanban

Beyond resilience adaptability and transformability are crucial properties. We leave those for a future blog post.


Adaptability is the capacity of actors in a system to influence resilience. This amounts to the capacity of humans to manage resilience.


The capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social (including political) conditions make the existing system untenable.

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