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Scrum to Lean Kanban: Some Problems and Pitfalls

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Some months ago I wrote an article on how to transition between Scrum and a Lean Kanban operation. It's an important capability for an organization to have, because when a Scrum project finishes it is likely to enter a "leaner" BAU (Business As Usual) support phase. There are consequences arising from such a move which experienced Scrum hands may find surprising, and perhaps even a little off-putting. In this article we'll look at the shift in mindset that is required to do this.

"Whoa! Something screwy has happened to our task board, it looks different"

Kanban boards are subtly different to the task boards commonly used in Scrum. At first blush they might look similar. Both have columns showing the progress of user story "tickets" from a backlog through states such as in progress, peer review, in test, and done. In either case there might also be a blocked column, although it is equally acceptable to add a "blocked" sticker, or to simply invert the ticket on the board.

As the name suggests, a task board will show the progress of the tasks that are needed to complete user stories. Often these tasks will be kept within horizontal swim lanes - one lane per user story. When all of the tasks are done, the user story will also move into done. Each user story therefore "chases" its tasks across the board.

A Kanban board on the other hand - which is meant to deal with smaller and finer-grained pieces of work - will typically track the progress of user stories themselves across the board. The requirements should be well understood and there should be little appreciable depth to the solutioning; there will be few if any explicit tasks associated with the user stories. There is therefore no need for horizontal swim lanes to keep tasks and user stories aligned.

You might also notice that Work in Progress limits are given particular emphasis in Lean Kanban. This is because scope is not timeboxed into sprints. The only way to throttle the rate of ticket throughput, and to keep it to manageable levels, is therefore by making sure that WIP limits are rigorously enforced. These are often annotated to the column headers on a Kanban board. For example, if there are 3 developers and 1 tester, the WIP for in progress would be 3, and 1 for in test.

"Hey…there's just one backlog"

That's right. Since there are no sprints in Lean Kanban, there can be no meaningful separation between a "sprint backlog" and a "product backlog". Instead there's just a single backlog of enqueued work items being brought into progress. This has repercussions for product ownership because you no longer have a clear separation between the prioritization that a team does for itself on a sprint backlog, and the prioritization done by a Product Owner on the product backlog. In effect you've just got a product backlog. In this situation clear product ownership can become more important then ever…or it can become a complete non-issue.

"The Product Owner has too much power, he keeps jerking our chain"

Since there is only one backlog, the Product Owner (or customer representative) must constantly reprioritize the user stories within it. The Product Owner needs to have more operational control in Lean Kanban than in Scrum. Developers can action tickets from the backlog on a daily or even hourly basis. There is no notion of getting a product backlog in shape before "the next sprint starts". Product Owners are therefore much more closely involved in day-to-day delivery than they would be in Scrum, and their involvement in daily standups becomes much more important.

Note that the extent of a Product Owner's decision making should not extend beyond the backlog, and a good Kanban Leader will protect the team and its work in progress just like a good ScrumMaster would.

"Now the Product Owner has disappeared altogether"

Business as Usual work often boils down to the maintenance of existing systems post-delivery. Depending upon the level of demand, it's quite plausible to have one Lean-Kanban team responsible for the maintenance of multiple systems. In this situation there is no product being delivered as such, and consequently there is no clear product ownership. Instead, work items are raised as change requests and triaged by the team who then manage and prioritize their own backlog. This means that the team needs a strong and shared sense of direction and purpose.

"There's no vision for this project"

That's because a Lean Kanban operation typically isn't a project at all. A defined end point is likely to be missing… remember that it's covering "Business as Usual work". These are small, repeatable changes that may affect diverse systems and without any sort of narrative to bind them together. There'll certainly be a purpose and a rationale for operating a Lean Kanban… but don't expect a project vision.

"We don't even seem to have decent sprint goals any more"

Yep, they've gone too. Since there is no project vision and no sprints on a Lean Kanban, we won't have any "sprint goals" either. What we might get is a grouping of work requests that fall within a larger epic of changes…but if we do, it could well be a cause for concern. We must ask: are those related changes really representative of "Business as Usual" work, or are they too high risk? Do they constitute a project?

"Lean Kanban work seems very bitty. I can't get a decent chunk to chew on"

The diet of a Lean Kanban should consist of small, "digestible" pieces of work that do not require much breaking down in order to action them. By definition they must be well-understood and low-risk. A team must know how to handle them without the need for impact analysis or de-scoping. You're unlikely to get a meaty piece of work; you're more likely to be sucking these things up through a straw. Velocity and lead times are particularly significant metrics in Lean Kanban.

Having said that, substantial and time consuming pieces of work can be taken on board if they satisfy the criteria of low risk and clear scope. An example would be the sort of work that conforms to a templated change.

Of course, this sort of work might not appeal to an agile developer. So let's be clear: it takes a different temperament to do Lean Kanban BAU work than project work in Scrum. They are different skill sets. Agile developers who are happy doing one can find it unsettling, or even unrewarding, if they are switched to the other.

"Why aren't we doing planning poker any more?"

Without a sprint backlog there is no budget of story points to be brought into a sprint. This in turn means that estimation exercises such as planning poker lose much of their significance. In a Lean Kanban operation velocity can be measured not in terms of story points - either estimated or actual - but simply as the number of tickets actioned over a set period. This also provides an indication of the lead time before a ticket is handled.

If tickets are of too variable a size - for example, if they include small ones as well as larger templated changes - then they can be awarded points for how long, or how much effort, they took. T-Shirt sizes is one approach. Remember that these points should represent the actuals, not estimates, so there's still no need for planning poker. Velocity can be averaged for each size. Alternatively the sizes can be mapped to points (e.g. small = 1, medium = 3, large = 7) and an aggregate velocity calculated.

"Some of the BAU work that's been coming through looks like project work to me"

You could well be right. It's important that you raise your suspicions with your team lead. There's often politics involved, but here's the lowdown.

In many organizations "Business as Usual" work is classed - you could almost say "written off" - as an operational expenditure (OpEx), and is not drawn from the capital expenditure (CapEx) assigned to projects. Internal customers often have an incentive to sneak through initiatives as BAU work so as not to incur capital expense on their departmental budgets.

This is indeed a political issue. But be on your guard otherwise your team could be hobbled with project work being slipped in on the sly. Be particularly wary of significant numbers of related changes, large changes, a seemingly high level of risk with any work items, or changes of uncertain scope. These suggest, but do not prove, that a fast one might be being pulled. Your team lead (who is analagous to a ScrumMaster) should try and defend against this, so if you as a team member have your suspicions, it's important to bring them to your lead's attention.

Conclusion, and what's next

In this post we've looked at the important differences between Lean Kanban and Scrum, and what that means for a team. We've also reviewed how a reasonably informed choice can be made between them.

In my next post we'll look at a hybrid approach known as ScrumBan which can potentially address both project and BAU work. ScrumBan is becoming increasingly popular and has significant ramifications for project scalability.

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