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The Role of Lean, Kanban, and DevOps in Scaling Agile Practices

role of kanban devOps in scaling agile practices

The agile approach to software development, rooted in the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto, has gone from fringe to mainstream over the past 20 years. An iterative approach with faster feedback cycles, flatter team structures, and continuous delivery of incremental value unquestionably fuels better software. 

However, as development organizations scale agile practices more broadly across sizable products and large, multi-team programs, they inevitably run into growing complexity. New challenges emerge around coordinating work, maintaining quality, and sustaining team pace and productivity that threaten the sustainability of agile at scale. 

Fortunately, several related models offer symbiotic solutions that, when combined appropriately with agile, enable smoother scaling and continuous improvement even across the enterprise. 

Specifically, lean thinking, Kanban methodologies, and DevOps philosophies help reinforce and complement core agile practices in these scaled contexts to drive better outcomes.

Lean Software Development

Lean software development derives from lean manufacturing principles focused on eliminating waste in order to more efficiently deliver maximum value to the customer. Applying lean thinking to software development processes helps teams improve flow through value streams, amplify learning, and continuously optimize for value delivery in an iterative manner. Key facets of lean software development include:

Reducing Batch Sizes

Large batch sizes and work-in-progress piles create numerous issues that hinder lean flow. Outsized batches extend lead times, obscure quality problems, cramp feedback channels, impair learning cycles, and delay value delivery downstream. By breaking giant batches into small pieces that flow sequentially through the process, teams receive feedback faster, adapt more quickly, and deliver value iteratively. Small batches also boost flexibility in the face of change.

Optimizing the Whole, Not Local Efficiencies

While localized optimizations may temporarily speed up a singular process, they often negatively impact the big picture workflow. For example, a testing optimization could burden deployment processes downstream. Lean mandates optimizing the global system for end-to-end value flow rather than isolated components. This requires holistic thinking, systems analysis, and cross-functional coordination.

Amplifying Learning Cycles

In lean, every activity and process iteration presents an adjacent opportunity for learning and refinement. Shorter cycles compound this effect for faster incremental improvements towards peak performance. Automated testing, continuous integration, and deployment pipeline flows dramatically accelerate learning cycles. More learning iterations also breed innovation, turning lessons into new practices and workflows.

Deferring Commitments

By postponing pivotal commitments and decisions in processes for as long as responsibly possible, teams retain flexibility to incorporate fresh learning and adapt to new developments. While certain constraints remain, resisting premature commitments allows adaptations to better meet customer needs through unforeseen changes that arise. The faster the flow, the later the commitments can happen while still delivering on time.

Applying these and other lean tenets reinforces key agile values like responding to change, delivering working software frequently, continuous improvement, and maximizing the amount of value-adding work performed. In concert, lean thinking and agile practices promote faster feedback, lighter processes, better quality, and optimized end-to-end value streams.

Kanban

Kanban is a workflow method designed to enhance flow, surface bottlenecks, limit work-in-progress, increase throughput, and boost overall efficiency through incremental process improvements. Kanban systems feature boards with columns representing each process state and cards moving across columns as work progresses from start to finish. Core Kanban practices for scaling agile environments include:

Visualization

Kanban boards provide complete visibility into every item flowing through the development-to-delivery lifecycle. Cards on columns coupled with work-in-progress limits highlight the exact status of all work at a glance. Visualizations illuminate where items get stuck, patterns emerge, and waste hides for rapid identification of improvement opportunities. Even in scaled agile settings, Kanban boards maintain transparency across roles, functions, and locales.

Work-In-Progress (WIP) Limits

WIP limits place a cap on the amount of work permitted within each column or workflow state on the Kanban board. These constraints intentionally uncover overburdening and process chokepoints. Too much WIP causes multitasking, distracts focus, decreases throughput, and extends lead times. Well calculated WIP limits balance optimized flow and sustainable pace while revealing constraints needing attention.

Flow Metrics

By tracking cycle times, lead times, throughput rates, and other critical flow metrics, Kanban fuels fact-based assessments of current performance and opportunities for incremental improvements towards optimal flow. Analyzing trends in these quantitative measures quantifies waste and its impact. Flow metrics feed evolutionary changes and innovations for greater productivity and customer value.

Explicit Policies

Explicit policies provide the essential wiring for Kanban implementations to scale efficiently while avoiding chaos and confusion across large platforms. Clearly defined workflows, processes, WIP limits constraints, and team agreements in writing ensure the metes and bounds within which the Kanban system can continuously improve. With scaling comes more complexity of interactions, so explicit policies enable streamlining.

Blending these Kanban practices and dynamics with agile methodologies boosts visibility, focus, and flow – smoothing out scaled agile adoption to better emphasize value and the reduction of waste. The small continuous improvements of Kanban gradually optimize not only processes, but culture for lean-agile scaling.

DevOps

DevOps philosophies and tooling help unify development and operations – two functions that grow farther apart as agile scaling introduces more complexity. Bridging this gap is critical for improving flow and sustaining agile practices enterprise-wide. Core DevOps techniques that bolster scaled agile success include:

Deployment Pipeline Automation

Automating the integration, testing, and deployment pipeline activities between code commit and production deployment radically accelerates feedback cycles and enhances reliability. Automation eliminates waste in manual handoffs, while enforcing consistency in standard environments and processes. This smooths flows upstream and downstream, getting customer feedback faster.

Infrastructure as Code

Managing computing infrastructure like servers via machine-readable definition files (code) allows engineers to programmatically provision, modify, dynamically scale, and update infrastructure on-demand. This amplifies flexibility since changes get updated in source control vs manual config changes prone to human error. Infrastructure managed as code and templates provides greater adaptability to enable continuous deployment.

Monitoring and Telemetry

In large, distributed software applications and microservices architectures, extensive monitoring provides tremendous observability into system health, performance, usage patterns etc. Aggregating telemetry data allows rapid traceability, analysis, and remediation of issues that crop up. Monitoring also aids proactive capacity planning and infrastructure changes to appropriately handle fluctuating workloads.

Cultural Alignment

The increased specialization and segregation between developers, ops engineers, and lines of business often misalign incentives and goals. This motivates local optimizations at the expense of organization-wide value streams. DevOps culture, org structures, and workflows aim to govern interactions and align priorities around speed, stability, quality and the continuous flow of value to customers.

Blending DevOps thinking and tools with scaled agile frameworks like SAFe helps sustain rapid iteration, feedback, and delivery across countless teams, functions, and systems that otherwise slow under sheer size and complexity. Together they enable continuous discovery and delivery of value.

Final Words

As software eats the world, the days of monolithic applications and slow, sequential development are over. The accelerating pace of technology demands organizations deliver innovation faster through more adaptive techniques focused on delighting customers. 

Agile principles and practices provide the foundation, yet scaling agile introduces complications that can undermine its core values. Thoughtfully integrating complementary frameworks like lean, Kanban, and DevOps preserves and bolsters agile’s advantages even as systems and team counts explode exponentially. 

Together, these models cultivate an approach centered on the continuous discovery and delivery of maximum value via incrementally improving processes, workflows, and cultures. 

While the complexity of scale remains challenging, inclusive scaling that expands from agile to lean, Kanban, and DevOps philosophies points the way forward for organizations to improve their capacity to rapidly respond to and leverage change.