kanban and the perfect job

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

This is the 5th principle behind the Agile Manifesto. The way this often gets translated is “take the top 10% of developers – put them in a room – and get out of their way.” This is great for the small groups of people that can build teams of entirely top 10% developers.  The question is, what do the other 90% of organizations do?

I believe this is a little chicken and egg. Do we build projects around motivated individuals – or can we design the work environment so that we end up with motivated individuals to build projects around? In the book, Understanding and Managing Organizational Behavior (George, J. M., and Jones, G.R. (2005). Understanding and managing organizational behavior, (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.) there is a chapter entitled “Creating a Motivating Work Setting”. This chapter discusses the models and research associated with answering this question.

The Job Characteristics Model

In the 1970’s Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham attempted to identify which job characteristics contribute to intrinsically motivating work and what the consequences of these characteristics are. The thought process is that, when employees are intrinsically motivated, good performance makes them feel good – so they strive to achieve at a a high level and good performance becomes self-reinforcing.  Their model, called the job characteristics model, identifies five core dimensions that affect intrinsic motivation:

  • Skill Variety: The extent a job requires an employee to use a number of different skills, abilities, or talents.
  • Task Identify: The extent a job involves performing a whole piece of work from beginning to end.
  • Task Significance: The extent a job has an impact on the lives and work of other people in or out of the organization.
  • Autonomy: The degree a job allows an employee the freedom and independence to schedule work and decide how to carry it out.
  • Feedback: The extent performing a job provides an employee with clear information about his or her effectiveness.

There has been significant research done around this model. It turns out that jobs that are high in these characteristics have the psychological effect of increasing the experienced meaningfulness of work, increasing the experienced responsibility for work outcomes, and increasing the knowledge of results. In return, these psychological states have a high correlation with the job outcomes of high intrinsic motivation, higher job satisfaction, lower absenteeism and turnover, and higher job performance.

This is exactly what we want, highly motivated individuals to build projects around. While the psychological states and the job outcomes are emergent outcomes that we can’t cause directly, Hackman and Oldham have shown that when we design jobs based on the job characteristics model we can improve the likelihood these psychological states and the resulting desirable job outcomes with emerge.

The Motivating Potential of Kanban

When implemented well, Kanban creates a work setting where the job design delivers on the five core dimensions of the job characteristics model.

  • Skill Variety: In Kanban, the team members are involved in the daily planning of their work, engage in discussions around how to get the work done, perform their specific work, and may swarm on other related work.
  • Task Identity: In Kanban, the entire focus is on the flow of work. The team members see the work flow from start to end.
  • Task Significance: One of the focuses of Kanban is to improve the lives of the team members themselves.  The focus on flow of value also helps the team understand how they are improving the the work of the customer and/or the people their organization.
  • Autonomy: Kanban allows teams to schedule their work through the pull mechanism. The self-organizing nature of the work also helps them decide how to care it out.
  • Feedback: Managing Cycle Times, explicitly tracking defects, and the rapid feedback cycles associated with the limited WIP create feedback on effectiveness at multiple levels.

Kanban inherently results in job design that improves intrinsic motivation and the resulting high levels of performance.

Kanban and the Perfect Job

Hackman’s and Oldham’s job characteristic model provides insight into how the work environment can increase job performance. We tend to focus on the benefits that Kanban delivers by improving the flow of work. In addition to improving the mechanics of flow, Kanban also has the potential to result in job designs that are high in all five job characteristic domains.  These result in psychological states that correlate with desirable job outcomes including higher job performance. 

There is a risk in implementing Kanban that we end up focusing on just the mechanics associated with the flow of work. Forgetting that software development is knowledge work would be problematic. But, by leveraging the work environment of a Kanban implementation we can create an intrinsically motivating work environment. Combing improved flow with an intrinsically motivated work environment results in a much more productive organization. Focus on the human and work environment aspects along with the benefits of flow when we implement Kanban to create the perfect job for team members.

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2 Responses to “kanban and the perfect job”

  1. Siddharta says on :

    Great post Dennis. I really believe that people’s behaviour is driven by the system and environment around them. Like you rightly pointed out, “Get great people & leave them alone” is backwards. Create a rewarding environment and you’ll improve the people you’ve got.

  2. Siddharta says on :

    Having said that, I’m not yet convinced that the methodology has a significant impact on the environment. It’s the other way around here too. The implementation of the methodology will tend to reflect the culture of the organization.

    Have you seen or heard of any examples where there has been a permanent change in the culture of an organization (not at the team level) by the adoption of Kanban?

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