Glossary of Terms

Glossary of common Kanban terms as it appears in Kanban from the Inside by Mike Burrows. The book helps readers understand the Kanban Method, connect it with familiar models such as Lean, Agile, and Theory of Constraints, and learn how to implement it step-by-step in their organizations. The reader can learn practical techniques to apply the Kanban Method, always considering the context of the particular situation and the people involved.

In alphabetical order:

Activity

In the context of a workflow, identified activities are performed on work items that are in appropriate states; activities often take work items from one state to another. Activities and their corresponding states typically map to the columns on a kanban board.

Adaptability

The ability to respond to changes in the environment. Note that very stable environments do not necessarily favor adaptability, which makes their inhabitants especially vulnerable when conditions do eventually change. See also fitness.

Agenda

For the purposes of this book, an agenda (or agenda for change) is a compelling call to action based on organizational need. Chapter 10 describes pre-defined “three agendas”; the tactic of constructing an agenda around a small number of prioritized values is described in Chapter 23.

Avatar

A movable token that represents a person. On a kanban board, avatars can be placed on cards to indicate who is working on them; limiting the number of avatars available is a technique to reduce multi-tasking.

Backlog

A list of work items that have not been started. Use this term with care if it is likely to imply stronger commitment than is warranted.

Batch, batch size, batch transfer

A group of work items that progress through the system (or part thereof) together. Projects often imply large batch sizes at the input and output of the system and large batch transfers between various defined stages in between. A strategy of releasing work into and out of the system in smaller batches has the tendency to reduce work-in-progress and lead times. See Chapter 15 for an economic treatment. See also transaction costs.

Blocked, blocker, blocking issue

A work item is said to be blocked when there is some abnormal condition preventing it from progressing. The proximate cause may be referred to as the blocker (often an issue or dependency) and visualized on the kanban board against the work item in question. See also stalled.

Bottleneck

An activity whose delivery rate constrains the delivery rate achievable from the system as a whole. 

Buffer

A queue deliberately placed ahead of a bottleneck or other critical activity for the purpose of ensuring a steady supply of work to it.

Capability review

A review of progress and performance held regularly at the departmental level.

Card (or ticket)

A visual representation of a work item.

CD3

An acronym coined at Maersk for cost of delay divided by duration, where duration is the remaining lead time. The queuing discipline known as weighted shortest job first (WSJF) seeks to minimize CD3. See Chapter 15.

Change agent

Usually an individual, a change agent causes change to happen.

Classes of Service (CoS)

Customer expectations defined broadly for different subsets of the overall workload. They influence selection decisions made inside the delivery system. Different classes of service are typically associated with qualitatively different risk profiles, especially with regard to schedule risk and cost of delay.

Four generic classes of service are widely recognized: “standard,” “fixed date,” “expedite,” and “intangible.” I often describe the first two of these as “urgency-driven” and “date-driven,” respectively.

Column, column limit

On a kanban board, vertical columns typically organize work items by state, such that they will move rightward across the board as they progress towards completion.

Column limits are work-in-progress (WIP) limits, constraints on the number of items allowed in a column at any given time.

Commitment, commitment point

Work items are said to be committed when there is a strong expectation shared with the customer that work on them should now proceed.

If there is one, the point in the process at which the transition between uncommitted and committed states typically occurs (perhaps the result of a replenishment meeting) is referred to as the commitment point. On a kanban board, this is represented by a line between columns.

There may be a second commitment point later in the process, the point at which the decision to release, deliver, or deploy work items is made, singly or in batches. 

Cost of delay (CoD)

A measure of the impact of delaying a work item, perhaps to allow another with a higher cost of delay to take precedence. At its most sophisticated, cost of delay is a function of time, and it measures the impact on total lifecycle profits of the affected product or portfolio.

Creative knowledge work

Knowledge work that is focused on meeting customer needs through knowledge discovery processes and creative problem solving. Many forms of product development and service delivery both inside and outside the technology sector meet this definition.

Cumulative flow diagram (CFD)

A stacked line chart that shows the delivery rate and work-in-progress for multiple states or activities. See Chapter 17.

Customer lead time

A specific lead time—the time work items take to go through the system—as experienced by the customer. Typically, this is measured from request to delivery.

Cycle time

Use with care! Most often this refers to the lead time through the “operational” part of the process (measured from when work starts until it is ready to be delivered), but it may refer to customer lead time, or (very differently) to the reciprocal of delivery rate.

Date-driven

See classes of service.

Delivery rate

Otherwise known as throughput (which is sometimes also a financial measure), it is the number of work items delivered from the system (or part thereof) per unit of time.

Dependency

Work items may be dependent on others (in which case they need careful sequencing to prevent them from becoming blocked), or require attention from other services (in which case they may need careful scheduling for reasons of availability).

Expedite

Describes the management of work items that must progress quickly through the system at the expense of others. See classes of service.

Feedback

The upstream flow of information about a product or process. 

Feedback loop

For the most part, this refers to the deliberate incorporation of feedback in the design of a process so that the resulting product, service, or the delivery process itself can be controlled and improved. Note, however, that not all feedback loops are there by design; some may be hard to identify, and they are not always benign. See Chapter 11.

Fitness

In its evolutionary sense, fitness describes how well something is adapted to its environment. In a competitive environment, relative fitness confers advantage. See also adaptability.

Fitness criteria

The measures that combine to indicate fitness.

Fixed Date

Describes work items that must be delivered on or shortly before a particular date. Typically, the cost of delay of such items is highly sensitive to small changes in delivery date around that time, and some active management of the schedule risk is called for. See classes of service.

Flow efficiency

An important metric, the ratio of touch time to (customer) lead time. Flow efficiency increases when work items are subject to less delay. See Chapter 19.

Histogram

A visualization of the distribution of data. In the Kanban context, histograms are particularly applicable to lead times.

Input queue

A queue placed at the start of the process, holding work items that have been selected for processing soon but that are not yet started. Often visualized as a “Ready” column. Assuming that a degree of commitment is involved, work items in the input queue count toward the overall work-in-progress (WIP) in the system, and the input queue is a good place to apply a WIP limit.

Intangible

Describes work items whose short-term economic value is hard to quantify but whose presence in the system is vital to its health and performance in the longer term. Often applied to preventive maintenance, experiments, system improvements, and so on. See classes of service.

Kanban

An overloaded term, often carrying multiple meanings at the same time. Written in kanji (Chinese characters), it means “sign” or “large visual board.” Written in hiragana (Japanese characters) it means “signal cards” (singular or plural). In technical presentations of the mechanics of kanban systems, we usually intend the latter meaning. Informally, it refers to the use of kanban systems (visual or otherwise) and the Kanban Method.

Kanban board

A visual organization of cards (the kanban) in a kanban system. Typically, boards are arranged in vertical columns and (optionally) horizontal swim lanes; additional dimensions may be represented by color or other card attributes. Cards move rightward from column to column as the work items they represent progress through the system. Work-in-progress limits and other policies may be represented visually also.

Kanban Lens

A way to understand the organization, operation, and improvement of creative knowledge work. Its service-based model offers an alternative view to the more conventional models of project delivery and functional organization. It also distills STATIK, the Kanban Method’s implementation approach. See Chapter 10.

Kanban Method

An evolutionary approach to change described by David J. Anderson in six Core Practices and four Foundational Principles. See Chapter 16.

Kanban system

A pull system implemented by limiting the number of kanban (cards) in circulation.

Kanban system lead time

The lead time through the part of the system that is subject to work-in-progress (WIP) limits.

Knowledge discovery process

A way to understand the process of creative knowledge work. It invites us to acknowledge how little we know at the start of the process, and helps us to identify the various kinds of knowledge that are developed at each stage of the process.

Knowledge work

Work that is mainly about using and developing knowledge (after Peter Drucker). See also creative knowledge work.

Lead time

Unqualified, this refers to the time a work item takes to progress through a process, and is often used synonymously with the more specific customer lead time. See also cycle time.

Limit

See work-in-progress (WIP) limit.

Little's law

A key result from queuing theory that relates a process’s arrival rate (for which we use delivery rate as its proxy), lead time, and work-in-progress. It is named in honor of John Little, who published its first proof in 1961. See Chapter 17.

Model

As per the introduction to Part III, a model may mean: 1) the example of others that can be replicated; 2) some set pattern, template, or routine that gives structure to one’s actions or thinking; 3) a way to understanding the world based on a defined set of assumptions; 4) a set of outcomes to be expected as a consequence of those assumptions. The Kanban Method contains a specific encouragement to its practitioners to use models to inspire, structure, and guide evolutionary change through collaboration and experimentation.

Multi-level board

A kanban board that manages work items at multiple levels of granularity (epic and story, for example). See Chapter 22.

Multi-tasking

A condition in which an individual or team has more than work item actively in progress. Controlling the overall amount of work-in-progress (WIP) in the system controls multi-tasking; the converse is not necessarily true. 

Operations review

A divisional meeting, typically held monthly, in which multiple teams share performance data, incident reports, and improvement updates with each other and (ideally) representatives of the customer and the wider organization. An essential feedback loop for larger implementations. See also service delivery review.

Opportunity cost

The economic benefit forgone when making a choice between alternatives.

Over-burdening

In ordinary usage, it is to give people or processes more work than they can effectively or humanely deal with. More narrowly, it is to maintain more work-in-progress (WIP) in the system (or part thereof) than can be sustained.

PDCA Cycle

The canonical improvement cycle known variously as the Deming Cycle, the Shewhart Cycle, the PDCA Cycle, or just plain PDCA. The acronym is short for “Plan, Do, Check, Act”; sometimes you will see PDSA, for “Plan, Do, Study, Act.” It describes an experimental (in the scientific sense) way to structure an improvement. See Chapters 3, 11, and 14.

Personal Kanban

The application of Kanban to the workload of an individual or small team. In their book of the same name, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry identify two practices most relevant to “choosing the right work at the right time”: 1) Visualize your work. 2) Limit your work in progress. See Chapter 16.

Policy

An explicit description of expected behavior or process constraint. Policies commonly associated with kanban systems include column-level “definitions of ready” and “definitions of done.” Work-in-progress (WIP) limits are also classified as policies.

Portfolio Kanban

The application of the Kanban Method to the management of project portfolios.

Proto Kanban

An early-stage Kanban implementation that addresses multi-tasking but does not control the amount of work-in-progress (WIP) between activities.

Pull system

A broad category of work-management system in which work is started—“pulled” from upstream—only as capacity becomes available. Kanban systems are pull systems; the availability of capacity and the ability to pull work is indicated by the gap between current work-in-progress and the corresponding limit. See also push.

Push

The act of placing work into a system or activity without due regard to its available capacity.

Queue

A place in the workflow (typically represented by a column on a kanban board) in which work items are held ahead of some later activity.

Queuing discipline

The set of policies that govern the selection of work items. First in, first out (FIFO) and weighted shortest job first (WSJF) are two important examples.

Release

The act of delivering to the customer, or the product that will be delivered.

Replenishment, replenishment meeting

The act of populating the input queue, and the meeting that achieves it.

Run chart

A chart that shows observations plotted against time. Commonly used to visualize lead times.

Safe-to-fail experiment

An experiment conducted that is designed to have only limited impact on the system in the event of failure.

Scrumban

The application of the Kanban Method in the context of an existing implementation of Scrum. Colloquially, it is Kanban, when the “what you do now” is Scrum.

Self-organization

The ability of a system to change itself without the intervention of an outside agent.

Service; service orientation

A system designed to benefit its consumers; a paradigm based on services, their interactions, and the results they generate for customers. See also the Kanban lens.

Service delivery review (or system capability review)

A weekly or biweekly review or progress-and-performance meeting held at the departmental level. See also operations review.

Stalled

A work item is said to be stalled when it remains idle because there is no capacity in the system to attend to it. See also blocked and starvation.

Standard

The baseline class of service, applicable to work items that are neither expedited, fixed date, nor intangible.

Standup meeting

A regular meeting (often daily) that is short enough (typically up to 15 minutes) that its participants can remain standing. See Chapter 1.

Starvation

A condition in which people or activities lack work due to inadequate flow from upstream. See also stalled.

State

The overall condition of a work item that determines where it should be in the system and what activity or activities could legitimately be applied to it.

STATIK

An acronym for the Systems Thinking Approach to Implementing Kanban, a recommended approach to implementing and progressing with the Kanban Method. Described in Part III.

Swim lane

On a kanban board, this is a horizontal lane along which cards flow. Swim lanes organize cards into categories; cards typically do not move between swim lanes (implying that they represent categories that are relatively long lived, such as epic- or project-sized work items, customers, or classes of service).

System capability review

See service delivery review.

Ticket (or Card)

The visual representation of a work item on a kanban board. Often quite literally a card (held on the board by magnets, say), or a sticky note.

Throughput

See delivery rate.

Touch time

The amount of time a work item spends being worked on, as opposed to waiting in a queue, blocked, or stalled due to multi-tasking. See also flow efficiency.

Transaction costs

The overhead costs that drive batch sizes. Reducing the truly fixed cost of each transaction (or recognizing that a greater proportion of the transaction cost is in fact variable, a function of batch size) allows transactions to be made smaller. See Chapter 15.

Unbounded (infinite) queue

A queue that has no limit.

Urgency-driven

See classes of service.

Values

In this book, values refer to properties that are widely agreed to be desirable, provide some sense of direction (because “more is better,” generally speaking), and serve to suggest, organize, or represent helpful practices and artifacts. The nine values described in part I are abstracted from the Kanban Method’s core practices and foundational principles. Other schools of thought and different organizational cultures will emphasize different values; values can be useful therefore for the purposes of comparison and selection.

Weighted shortest job first (WSJF)

A queuing discipline that seeks to minimize cost of delay by giving precedence to work items that have the largest economic impact in proportion to the remaining time needed to implement them. See Chapter 15.

Workflow

The sequencing of activities or (broadly equivalently) of work item states that results in products or services being delivered. Workflow tends to cut across considerations of functional structure, though not always optimally. See also knowledge discovery process.

Work item

A deliverable or a component thereof (a new product feature, for example). Generally speaking, tasks and activities are not work items in this sense. See also card, workflow.

Work-in-progress (WIP)

At system level, this refers to work that has been started but not delivered out of the system. In the Kanban Method, we are also interested in where the WIP resides, measuring and controlling the number of work items that occupy particular states or activities. We may also control the allocation of WIP across other categorizations, such as customer, work item type, or class of service. See Chapters 2 and 21.

Work-in-progress (WIP) limit

A policy that constrains the amount of WIP allowed in a given part of the system. Typically expressed as a number—the maximum number of work items. WIP-limited systems are pull systems. Minimum limits may also be used to trigger replenishment.

 

KANBAN FROM THE INSIDE TM & © 2014 Michael Burrows. All other material, including Blue Hole Press and the Blue Hole Press logo are trademarks of David J. Anderson & Associates, Inc., registered in various countries and categories. All rights reserved.