alacrity in action

I have noticed this tweet from Paweł sent during his visit to Kanban Leadership Retreat:

Main root cause of Kanban failure are people who don’t want to face the truth (either people/teams or coaches). #klris

Paweł is a smart guy and I always listen to his ideas carefully, and any interesting thoughts that he stumbles across. I understand this tweet came out of some of the discussions during the retreat. I don’t know the context so found the statement itself to contradict some of my own understanding. I wrote a quick reply and Catherine encouraged me to write a bit more, so I’ll try to scribble a few more thoughts.

For me, the root cause analysis is a useful tool that helps to understand the true reason (or cause) behind some observable effect, event or problem in order to solve it in a permanent way. It’s used to avoid only addressing the symptoms. It’s often associated with the 5 whys technique where you keep asking “why” about a potential explanation you can think of to dig through to what might be at the root of the issue.

With this in mind, I look at the statement and reading “people who don’t want to face the truth” a question immediately pops into my mind: Why do these people don’t want to face the truth”?

If I were to accept this as a root cause, I would have to accept that it’s an inherent nature of people not to wish to face the truth. I don’t believe that to be the case. Equally I know our brains are exceptionally good at obscuring the truth from us especially if such truth is inconvenient or threatening. Therefore I ask further, what makes it such, that truth about a process or approach, as exposed when using Kanban, is threatening to people.

Rather than having reached the root I feel like I am only at a grasp of the branches.

There is however, in my mind, a more fundamental problem with this statement, such that it assumes there is a root cause of Kanban failure. That there is a single (or at least one main) thread of cause and effect relationships that start with people and end with failure. One, suggesting that by simply “fixing people”, we could fix the problems of failures of Kanban.

My recent studies of books like “Management 3.0“, “Seeing forest for the trees” taught me that when multiple interactions of individuals are concerned thinking in terms of linear relationships is often too simplistic. We are dealing with complex adaptive systems and they can be described better by casual loops than simple chains. Root causes simply don’t exist – and when we think we found one, it only means we didn’t yet close the loop.

I wish there was a main root cause of Kanban failures. We could capture it, understand and apply fixes. Instead we must understand the whole system, study the way work works, how people interact. We need to create conditions where people feel safe to be vulnerable in order to explore their assumptions, verify them against each other and turn to a learning stance from which solutions can begin to emerge. It’s hard, painful and takes time. And it is possible. Kanban can certainly help. After all, surely Kanban adoption is not the goal.


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