The past week-end there's been some chatter on twitter about using Kanban or Scrum for managing work outside the software development realm.
People seem (pleasently) surprised that it can be done. But can it really? The answer is YES! But why do methods that were clearly developed with software development in mind expand to manage other type of work?
Well, we have to look at the roots of these methods to understand that. Both Kanban and Scrum based their core practices around a list of "stuff" to do. Features/stories in software development fills these lists or backlogs, but in an advertising agency, for example, the "stuff" will be something like drawing proposals for clients, brainstorming meetings, research work, etc.
Through these lists, Kanban and Scrum establish an order of work (what to do now?) and allow what is normally a disconnected mass of work to be organized in a way that a team can use, not only to execute, but also to follow-up their work (e.g. through a burndown/burnup chart)
Indeed, at the root both Kanban and Scrum are just formalized work management methods that were created to overcome the chaos that is still so normal in software development organizations. The hidden truth however, is that the same chaos is present elsewhere and those companies can benefit as much from Scrum/Kanban as the software industry is benefiting now.
The corollary of this is that Scrum/Kanban can be used to do anything, from building a space ship to planting potatoes, and I have even used it for personal non-software development work as well as helped others establish some of the ideas behind Scrum as their own "working method".
There's a catch, though!
Getting back to the backlogs, both these methodologies need a steady stream of work to be analyzed, prioritized and ultimately picked up to be worked on. Because the constraint (i.e. the part in the system that is always busy) in the process is normally the project team, it is imperative that special attention be given to the backlog, where work is listed and described. It is often a good practice to regularly spend time analyzing the work in the backlog to make sure that it fits the Vision for the product/project and that it is sufficiently well defined so that the team will not lose their time trying to figure out what the work-item really means.
For this we normally have a manager (called product owner in Scrum) whose time is spent analyzing the project/product and deciphering the customer needs into a format that the team can understand.
This work is crucial, and the real reason why teams need "managers" (product owner in Scrum).
Manage your work for better performance
The key message here is this: Your work performance will only be as good as you are at managing the backlogs.
Because Scrum/Kanban are work management methods, it follows that the team's performance will depend heavily on how the backlogs are managed by the team and their manager. Therefore, the hidden pearl in Scrum and Kanban is that you should focus a lot (but not all) of energy in defining and improving how your manage your work. And this is valid for any type of work. Be it software or creative projects in an advertising agency.