Using narrative to research Kanban implementations

Update to this post (Oct. 30, 2013)

During the months after this blog post, Arno Korpershoek and myself have worked on an implementation of a narrative research tool (as described in the blog post) for lean agile organizations based on Cognitive Edge Sensemaker. The purpose is to allow practitioners to share stories about their experience with lean and agile. You can go and have a look and leave a story (if you want) on the narrative research tool website.

How deep is your Kanban?

The Kanban community holds the idea of evolutionary change very dear. The Kanban core practices play a central role in the sense that they are said to catalyze change, allowing a lean agile organization to emerge.Given the importance of the core practices, it is to be expected that people ask the question of how to “measure” a Kanban implementation against the core practices.

Kanban spider

Such measurements are being developed in the Kanban community. Typically, each core practice is considered a dimension against which to measure according to a certain scale of shallow to deep implementation. The above is a typical spider diagram visualization of this. The size and shape of the area in the middle of the spider diagram are a visual representation of the depth of the Kanban implementation for the team that is measured.

The most important reason for measuring a Kanban implementation seems to be a genuine concern for improvement. Measurement can help a team to identify “gaps” or opportunities for improvement. More importantly, it can help to identify other teams with similar or different profiles in the context of experience sharing.

Narrative research

Despite all good intentions, “measurement” of teams is a very thorny issue. We all know that measurement engenders all kinds of dysfunctional behavior. Quantification leads to unwanted outcomes, the environment is treated as unvarying, the context is not taken into account (one-size-fits-all), and it narrows the focus to that what is measured. Most important it may lead to cargo cult as every team aspires to conform to the ideal. In the wrong hands, it can turn into a tool that completely goes against the grain of evolutionary change that is held so dear.

The risk of a one-size-fits-all approach can kill the team diversity that is so crucial to improvement. Teams with different levels of sophistication in their Kanban implementation act as gradients for improvement. Just like a hang glider that needs pressure differences to keep going, improvement and learning needs different teams that perform at different levels of sophistication of implementing Kanban to keep on going. The wrong approach to measurement can take all the pressure differences away leaving no room for learning.

Glider that uses thermals

Narrative research (or narrative inquiry) is an alternative that needs to be seriously evaluated in the Kanban community. Narrative inquiry is a form of qualitative research that emerged in the field of management science and later also developed in the field of knowledge management. It uses stories as the central unit of analysis. It is the stories, such as the two examples below, that provide a context to any quantification of a Kanban implementation. Numbers derive meaning from the context that is set by the stories that are told by the individuals and team(s) that implement Kanban.

Story 1: We are a maintenance team that maintains a large application. Our customers are users from the following  units in the business:= HR, Finance, etc. Customers expect timely delivery of changes to the application and a stable application.

Story 2: We are innovating our product to cope with disruptive changes in the market. We are still exploring what our potential customers want and the business model to capture the value.

So how do the Kanban core practices fit in the narrative research? As a coach I have had the privilege to witness how the Kanban core practices are key to phase shift an organization into a different regime of higher performance. I am sure other coaches have had similar experiences. The Kanban core practices are modulators; i.e. a forces or factors that trigger a change in the “leanness” or “agileness” of a team. They are not just independent and linear dimensions. They influence each other and are influenced by the emergence of a lean-agile organization.

Core practices as modulators As such, it is a good idea to let the individuals and teams signify their stories with an identification of the strength or direction of the modulator/core practice. To avoid “cargo cult”/”conformance to the ideal” we prefer however to use a signification based on equal opposite ends rather than the traditional negative – positive extremes. The picture below shows an example on the basis of “Implement feedback loops” core practice.

Implement feedback loops signifier

The design of the signifier is such that both ends of the scale are equally positive/neutral or negative. In the example above, both types of feedback loops are seen to be equally neutral.

A signifier set design based on equal opposite ends avoids the risk of conformance to the ideal. However, designing a signifier set with equal opposite ends can sometimes prove to be a difficult exercise; especially for the Kanban core practices. The reader might, for example, have different concerns with the example above: Are the opposite ends really equal?  Are these the right opposite ends? I do think that the leaders in our community can agree upon a signifier set that is suitable. The exercise of building it could have a value in itself.

Fitness landscapes

I conclude this blog with an indication of how the results of a narrative inquiry are visualized and used. The figure below shows a fitness landscape. (NOTE: This is not a fitness landscape that has been constructed based on a narrative inquiry. Still it does fine for illustrating how a large quantity of stories that have been signified can be visualized.)

Fitness Landscape

Fitness Landscape

The fitness landscape shows plateau’s of stable implementations; outliers; and peaks of instable implementations. It can guide us to the places where we need to make an intervention and places that we can learn from.

For constructing such a landscape we need to have a large enough quantity of stories. This may be beyond what is possible for small organizations; it might even be beyond the possibilities of larger organizations. My personal opinion is that this presents an opportunity for LKU, Limited WIP society or other to serve the Kanban community. A collection of Kanban implementation stories signified at the source of collection can prove to be an invaluable asset for the community.


Dave Snowden’s work on narrative research has been very influential. See the Cognitive Edge website for more information.

This entry was posted in change, complexity, kanban, Lean, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Using narrative to research Kanban implementations

  1. Patrick,
    Great views on the merger of Kanban with Narrative research. You make a valid point on measuring actual progress. I too believe that the combination improves isight in the impact of Kanban-implementation in an organization. Furthermore imho narrative research provides a structural management tool to gain insight in the risks and opportunities implementing such changes in all types of organizational changes, Agile or not.

    When the Narrative research is effectively supported, it provides both quantitative and qualitative data. In such way the data is supported by contextual information which supports better decision making.

    I propose we work further on this setting up of such a research and demonstrate it’s relevance.
    At wibas we have done some work in that direction already.


  2. Hey Arno,

    Thanks for your comment. Can you share some of the experience?


  3. Johan says:

    The idea of using narrative research to counter measurements that encourage the one-size-fits-all approach looks like a promising alternative. Lets, however, not forget the Gemba principle in our lean thinking. I believe that measurements based on seeing Kanban in action on the workfloor are far superior. Any suggestions on what this might look like?

  4. Hey Johan,

    That is a good point. Narrative research cannot replace going to the gemba. Seeing kanban in action on the work floor, looking at the flow of work, measurement of the flow are the main instruments that you want to use with teams to improve (e.g. through operations review meetings or other improvement kata’s). Operating at scale (scaling up) however does impose its own challenges. Larger scale tends to introduce more intermediaries, for example between those that actually do the work and upper management, but also between teams. Narrative research helps in disintermediation. A collection of stories can be a valuable resource for teams to learn from each other, given a structure that helps teams to navigate the stories. Signified stories provide such a structure. They can act as an accelerator for learning; early signal detection for problems; early signal detection for opportunities; and guide us to patterns of practice that need reinforcement or dampening.


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