Editor's Note: David Anderson (above) is keynoting at The Path to Agility conference on May 22 - 23, 2013 at the Arena Grand Theater in Columbus. 

David Anderson: Kanban Can Change Society
By Terreece Clarke, May 9th, 2013

David Anderson, author, CEO of Lean-Kanban University and keynote presenter at the 2013 Path to Agility conference is passionate about the working conditions of IT Pros and looks to what he calls "the second generation of the Agile method," for change management. Anderson continues, "The way we manage knowledge workers is deeply affecting society. [Business] has a very old-fashioned way of thinking - as long as the results produce for investors, it doesn't matter how you get there."

He continues, "That's not a helpful, healthy or sustainable [situation] in a modern workforce."

Anderson discussed how managers have missed the rise of the modern worker and contributed the miss to foundations laid in business schools across the country.

"Peter Drucker said the knowledge worker is actually an executive and every decision they make affects the bottom line - [resulting in] a large quantity of small decisions that have a big impact," he said. "They are also investors, because their bonuses are often in stock, yet they are seen as just workers. They [businesses] have lost focus on how to motivate these people."

Out of Date, Out of Focus

The Gantt Chart is still being taught in business schools, when it was originally designed for scheduling work in a factory, Anderson said. When it was discovered that it really didn't work well, it fell out of favor with manufacturing, but was adopted and used as a way to manage knowledge workers. It does a poor job of it, Anderson asserted.

"Many people think we need to standardize. That's 20th century thinking - it's not appropriate for knowledge based workers," he said.

Anderson said the inability to properly manage knowledge workers leads to a dramatic loss in productivity, with the average company surveyed reporting just a 2 - 5 percent efficiency rate.

"We are great at starting things and we don't focus on finishing, so we burden the workforce with greater works in progress loads," Anderson said. "We have a situation of workers - motivated, knowledgeable - and we put them into these places of inefficiency. They work harder and harder and longer and longer, always on and its destroying the social capital."

Tasks Taking Their Toll

The effects on "always on" modern workers shows up in a variety of ways, including health and relationships. Anderson relayed a story about a top Microsoft executive who loved his job and was always working, while staying connected through a variety of electronic devices. He had spent 20 years of his life dedicated to the company and he woke up one day and realized his children resented him. Anderson said he spoke of the difficulties of trying to reconnect with the youngest child - a teen - and the loss he felt for the older children who were adults.

"How many other parents will have that situation where they have spent the majority of their time not with their children or with them but not present because they're staring at their devices?" Anderson asked.

For Anderson, the plight of the modern worker is not merely about helping companies improve their efficiency while giving parents a chance to parent. He believes happy workers have global implications. He says improving the work environment improves economics and the sociological makeup of society as a whole.

According to a 2011 study for The Conference Board by Nielsen, 47.2 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. The report cites 2005 as the last year in which a majority of Americans, 52.1 percent, was happy at work. Compared to numbers from the 1980s and '90s, widespread dissatisfaction has been a part of American society since the turn of the century.

Kanban to the Rescue

It's no surprise that the CEO of Lean-Kanban University offers the approach to those seeking a way to truly manage the knowledge worker effectively while increasing efficiency.

"[The] Kanban approach is the antithesis to first generation Agile. Kanban says to understand what you're doing and evolve your own processes through small changes - and don't change unless you know why you're doing it. Agile is, forget what you know and do this," Anderson said.

He also pressed the importance of using of plain language in Kanban versus the more jargon heavy Agile method. Explaining how he takes great care to exchange the Japanese words used in Kanban for more user friendly terms. These changes, he argues, are why Kanban is more effective and faces less resistance when scaling for large organizations, unlike Agile practices.

"People resist very personally, emotionally, because they intuitively know what will work in their particular situation versus the prescriptive approach of Agile," he said. "The Kanban movement is similar to the improvement in manufacturing [that lead to widespread success]."

Anderson said, the good news is there are still great opportunities for improvement, especially with such a low rate of efficiency in the industry.

"With a 2 percent efficiency, the other 98 percent is stuck for a variety of reasons," he said. "The question is, who is responsible for improving that? Most organizations are tasked with managing the workers, not the blocks or queue."

One area he noted that would bring about a large boost in productivity is decreasing the number of tasks people are doing. Often, Anderson said, people were doing seven things at once. By reducing those 'work in progress' loads to one, companies will see a dramatic drop in failure of demand.

Anderson doesn't think it will take very long for the Kanban method to become a part of the everyday business world. "I look at it and it's not going to take 100 years, I'd be surprised if it takes 20 years…to quote William Gibson, 'The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed, yet.'"