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Portfolio Kanban

Visual Management Systems (VMS) or “Kanban Boards” are Lean artifacts. Typically, they are large display boards that show all the work being done. They allow anyone to quickly see work in progress, understand its status, and assess what is under control and what is not.

These Kanban boards are designed to help visualize and optimize flow. Applied at the portfolio level, they help drive a continuous flow of ideas, prototypes, deliveries, revenues, and customer feedback.

Key Points

  • Change the “unit of work” from projects to product features

    Align feature dellivery to near-term / quarterly business goals

  • Do dependency planning at the feature level and find those features that can start flow through towards “done” right now

  • Use visual management systems to see the flow of work and uncover bottlenecks

  • Address organizational bottlenecks

Key Outcomes

  • Projects are decomposed into features and/or MMPs

  • Batching is minimized so that features and MMPs are flowing independently of each other

  • Business outcomes that support the strategy are being incrementally achieved on at least a quarterly basis

  • The entire portfolio pipeline of work is visible from “concept to cash”

Key Metrics

  • Business value achieved by quarter

  • Feature /MMP throughput

  • Feature/MMP cycle-time

Most organizations are not accustomed to managing for flow. Instead they tend to manage for local efficiency, people utilization, or around traditional processes. None of these techniques enhance organizational level flow or throughput.

In addition, most organizations view the “project” as the primary unit of work or unit of delivery. By batching many features and fixes into a single project and then delivering the project, the organization looses the ability to quickly deploy value to the business and to customers. Simple changes that could provide value today are delayed and eventually deployed when the whole project is completed. Customers do not care about your internal projects … they care about features and fixes. Lean is all about deploying value “as defined by customers”! The key to achieving portfolio flow is to find features and fixes that start to flow immediately towards production delivery.

Working in this manner, we can start to achieve a continuous flow of value.

An end-to-end Visual Management System is a tool to help leaders see and manage flow in the portfolio. It helps to identify bottlenecks and optimize the speed of delivery.

A simple Portfolio Kanban, as shown, can help leaders prioritize general demand, shortlist and prioritize demand, and feed a program backlog with prioritized work ready for implementation by multiple teams.

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Using a Portfolio Kanban is a strategy for global rather than local optimization. Not only must teams work efficiently as they develop products, projects and programs, but portfolio managers and executives must mange workstreams for the most value also. This involves prioritizing initiatives based on ROI and the cost of delay while remaining cognizant of constraints and dependencies.  

Portfolio Kanban brings additional visibility to the initiatives in development (work in progress or WIP in Lean terminology) and organizational constraints. Many businesses attempt too many cross-cutting initiatives unaware of the collisions and contentions this causes. They see a business opportunity so spin up a project for it without data about it’s impact on current in-flight work. Often dependencies and constraints associated with supporting groups, poor environment provisioning, or legacy system integration limit throughput. 

The result of too much work in progress and poor visibility into constraints is twofold. First everything slows down as teams engage in a complicated coordination dance of both technology-compatibility and people engagement. People try time slicing to determine what is fair and try to please or at least serve everyone. The second issue is things inevitably break. When using new, emerging technology, no one can foresee all the impacts or incompatibilities. As issues occur people on two or three projects have to stop determine what happened, fix it and then pick up from where they were and continue.  

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With high levels of work in progress, determining the source of conflicts is hard and the frequency of issues is high. Momentum is difficult to build and maintain. In a culture where issues and delays are the norm it is tough to establish a mindset of accountability and reliable delivery. As a coping mechanism people establish a do-the-best-I-can mentality and do not step up to own and fix problems as frequently as we would hope for. Why would they? The next change may make it impossible, better to just do what is being asked for today. 

The solution is to use Portfolio Kanban to show how the current network of initiatives creates additional work and risk. It is not a case of learning to say “No” to business requests, it is a case of using stricter sequencing based on known dependencies. Actually far more work can be delivered in a given period if the work was sequenced rather too much work attempted concurrently.

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