Open Letter to Torbjörn Gyllebring & KLRATers

Dear Torbjörn & KLRATers,

The month of June for me is particularly packed with life events, my birthday (this one ends in a zero) and anniversary (I met my wife TEN years ago), as well as an important Library Industry conference (ALA) so, it is with a great deal of regret that I will miss the Kanban Leadership retreat this year.

Thinking back to last year, my experience in Iceland was intense. The conversations started in Reykjavík helped shape my research for this past year. I suspect, having gotten to know many of the people likely to show up this year, you will all have an amazing time, challenging each other and pointing out new areas of concern and gaps in our collective knowledge.

That said, Torbjörn it is with a light heart that I write to explain your very unserious duties as the Keeper of the Weird this weekend at #KLRAT.

Before I get to your duties, I feel compelled to explain the history of Keeping Kanban Weird. Last year my wife and I decided to jump on a plane and spend our anniversary with a bunch of process nerds in the middle of the Atlantic. The first night before the conference we all went out for pizza, it was my first chance to meet many of the people involved in thinking about, learning, teaching and practicing kanban. What a friendly group of challenging minds!

The next morning we kicked off the open space conference, introducing ourselves to each other. Then we split into groups, each gathering around a table. I gravitated towards the front (I like to take pictures) and after explaining that each table needed to come up with 2 ideas to present David walked over to join our group. I looked around and saw that the table was full of people who had written and spoken about kanban for several years. With this crowd and David there too, I didn’t really think any of my topics would have a chance but, I’d been playing with this strange idea in my head… Kanban is a bit Weird… and we should make sure it stays weird. So I wrote it up…

Keep Kanban Weird Historical Artifact

To my surprise, not only did the table choose “Keeping Kanban Weird”, it was also accepted as one of the conference topics, and when the time came, people even showed up to listen to me talk about it!

Always first steps.

                     -Brian Eno

Soo… one might ask what’s so weird about kanban anyway. The quality of weirdness that I was thinking about when I coined the phrase is not freakishness, but more like unusual or odd. Looking at the group gathered I wanted to have a challenging counterpoint to normalization or more specifically to premature standardization. As all ideas grow and become diffused through larger and larger populations they are often diluted. One of the first things removed to make ideas more palatable to larger audiences is a certain feeling of “otherness,” a quality that attracts those who are curious and are willing to put in the work to understand novel and challenging ideas. Keeping Kanban Weird is about balancing the growth of the kanban community with the growth of the individuals in the community, thereby preserving the parts that spur us all to want to understand, why, how and where kanban works.

One of my favorite parts of David Anderson’s “Kanban” is the “Epiphany” story. Walking in the Emperor’s Garden in early April 2005 David finds a kanban being used to control the flow of visitors to the garden. There are many subtleties here, one I find most interesting is that the kanban in the garden was being used to preserve value by LIMITING flow as too many people in the gardens lowered the value of the experience for everyone. There are more subtleties. The garden kanban has no kanban board just a distributed visual control, no factory, no software developers. So, I think that it is not just a good story… I think it is kind of weird. The story I think points towards an interesting insight: if the Kanban Principles are “correct” they will be found in many highly diverse forms, in many disparate environments. Keeping Kanban Weird is partially about hunting down new contexts and forms of Kanban, so we can see where it works and how.

How might we go about structuring our community in a way that preserves the weird while permitting growth? In “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” Alexander describes a “Mosaic of Subcultures” that offers some interesting advice that may help us. First, we should understand the failure states that we need to watch out for. Alexander points out two: heterogeneity and ghettos.

The Heterogeneous City

“The homogeneous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character”

-Christopher Alexander

Heterogeneity in a community, mixes ideas and people together without consideration for their differences. Individuals in these communities have difficulty locating like people who “think the way they do”, eliminating chance for mentorship and personal growth. The signal is lost in the noise. Highly individualistic communities seem rich at first, but over time, difficulties gaining agreement encourage conformity and reduce understandings to least common denominators. Common assumptions and group rules dominate gaining more agency than the individuals themselves. Conversations turn toward control of the rules and messages. Ideas and people who may have flourished given communal support, instead are never seen or heard. The result of undifferentiated heterogeneity isn’t richness it is a degeneration into homogeneity. The resulting collapse of local communities can be seen very clearly in places like Manhattan, which at one point had rich and diverse neighborhoods. Those local neighborhoods cultures weren’t valued by the sweeping gentrification, which traded in community differentiation, for the convenience of a Starbucks and a Gap on every other corner. Homogeneity in our community would appear as a bland one size fits all “answer” to “the problem.” When the kanban community stops exploring and challenging each other, when we all agree that we “know the one right way” to develop software, we won’t be all that weird (and the coffee will be over roasted and not very good).

City of ghettos

“People in the ghetto are usually forced to live there, isolated from the rest of society, unable to evolve their way of life and often intolerant of ways of life different from their own”

-Christopher Alexander

The opposite of homogeneous community is a ghetto, walled in people and ideas. The urge to differentiate in communities and from “others” is strong. It is an urge I find difficult to tame myself on occasion. FEELING RIGHT feels awfully good, and there is no better way to FEEL (not necessarily be) RIGHT than pointing out how wrong someone else is. As a community we need to be able to have our own space, and our own ideas, but we shouldn’t create that space by excluding others based upon their views. We need to hear other communities’ objections and understand that those objections reflect as much on our inability to explain our ideas well, as it does on their (potential) ignorance. Creating a walled community risks starving ourselves of new ideas and, more importantly, risks people not caring enough to challenge our current ideas. It is through such challenges that we will find the next bit of “ignorance” that will drive our curiosity.

Mosaic of subcultures

“The metropolis must contain a large number of different subcultures, each one strongly articulated, with its own values sharply delineated, and sharply distinguished from the others. But though these subcultures must be sharp and distinct and separate, they must not be closed; they must be readily accessible to one another, so that a person can move easily from one to another, and can settle in the one which suits him best.”

-Christopher Alexander

So, we need to: a) create subcultures that support individuals and ideas, b) avoid “one size fits all” homogeneity, c) ensure we don’t fracture into walled in groups and d) avoid isolating ourselves from the larger agile/lean/software development community (phew… no problem!). Alexander’s concept for this is a mosaic of subcultures, living cities that are structured to give subcultures space to grow, individuals the freedom to move, and structure enough for individuals to see and understand the differences between cultures. We need to be able to say “we are different from X” without saying “if you think X like things, you can’t come to our club house.” This, of course, is not easy to do as a community. Recently I’ve been thinking it might require a community full of Benjamin Mitchell clones, constantly balancing advocacy and inquiry…

A mosaic of subcultures also requires us to identify, differentiate and support sub communities inside of the kanban community itself; local Limited WIP Societies, Kidzbans, Personal Kanban, Teacher’s Kanbans, The Kanban Method etc… as a community we need to understand how weird (and cool) it is that teachers are using kanbans to help children in kindergarten, couples and families are using Personal Kanbans to manage their households, and children are using kanbans to take control of their school lives. How weird that kanbans work in all these places, what does this say about our Principles?

Complex Adaptive Systems use simple rules and seed conditions to stimulate emergent behavior. The simple rules are embedded in the 5 Core Properties and the seed conditions are represented in the first principles of starting with the current process, gaining agreement to pursue incremental improvement and respecting current work practices, roles, responsibilities and job titles. What will happen next is emergent change. Beyond that we cannot predict. The system must be monitored and adapted. The simple rules being used such as WIP limits and workflow visualization must be tweaked and changed to steer the emergent behavior to produce a desirable outcome.


What dangers are there in letting kanban just be “normal?” Simple: believing we know what is right, being too lazy to continue to challenge ourselves, choosing to follow vs. exploring as a group. When we coalesce into a standard kanban, we risk trying to make our business processes look alike, instead of using kanban to allow us to evolve systems unique to our local environments and needs. Keeping Kanban Weird then is a asymptotic goal, an active process of searching and challenging our ideas and principles, individually and as a community.

A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

-Karl Popper

I know we are now keeping kanban weird because we are such a diverse set people exploring so many different ideas.
I think these are but a few examples of many:

  •  A) Mike Burrow’s Portfolio Kanban
  •  B) Benjamin’s questions about what we mean by Leadership.
  •  C) Don Reinertsen’s tension between Centralization and Decentralization.
  •  D) Hipster Kanban


Each of these examples point out our ignorance… they and ideas like them are our GREATEST hope for new knowledge. We must keep striving to understand where we are wrong, and what we don’t understand.

OK. So now, Torbjörn, I am so happy to call you and so many others who are gathering at KLRAT my friends and colleagues. Here are your very unserious Keeper of the Weird duties:

  •  A) Stand up and be heard
  •  B) Make sure that other people with weird, different and challenging ideas are heard as well


If my experience last year is any indication, you’ll have a lot of help being weird. Your questions and provocations will be rewarded with well-considered responses and continued exploration long after KLRAT is over… oh, and give everyone a hug for me!



The Keep Kanban Weird Community Challenge:

  •  1. David’s Principles are theses… the practices/emergent behaviors are Validated Learnings that have been proven to work in certain contexts.
  •  2. Go forth… find contexts where the experiments FAIL… find the edges… then find experiments in that context that re-affirms the Principles
  •  3. Also… define NEW experiments… report on success AND failure (in context)


Gaping Void "Weird"

“Weird” Gaping Void