Friday, April 2, 2010

Marvel Superheroes and Kanban the Ultimate Crossover!

The Team Started off Using a Kanban Board...

There is a wealth of advice on how using concepts like a Kanban board will help teams to better manage software projects. The idea is that publicly wall sized boards (or other information radiators placed in an area that can be seen in use by the entire team) can be used to highlight and set limits on work in progress, limiting work to capacity, and allowing resources to focus on completing dedicated units of work with a limited amount of multitasking. The Kanban concept allows software development teams to start out using the Kanban board to represent an already existing software development process, one that the team is already familiar with, and gradually adopt more agile or not agile practices as necessary to address specific blocking issues. The idea is a simple one, let problems, typically manifested as blocked work, dictate what practices and methods are adopted by the team.

one approach to starting out with kanban is to develop a initial value stream for the delivery process. Often various team leads meet and conduct a preliminary value stream mapping exercise. A value stream maps allows everyone to get an idea of how value and work items would be completed and passed between different teams and competencies. Once complete the entire team can set up a Kanban board based on the value stream.

But Managing Work in Progress Can Still Be Exceedingly Difficult!

Despite best attempts, many teams just can't manage work in progress properly. Requirements work takes too long to get into the development funnel, development teams and the development team leads can constantly get interrupted by "emergency" request (which were being tracked on the board), specialists (like testers) are nowhere in sight, the development work in progress (WIP) overflows with technical based stories, and work clearly exceeds the WIP limit set for the team.

Clearly not all teams have the skills to make Kanban successful on their own, but what is the solution...

Marvel superheroes to the rescue...

The immediate solution isto replace the typical ho-hum avatars that are used to identify who is doing what kind of work on the kanban board with avatars based on the iconic members of the Marvel superheroes family. Clearly by using these avatars, one can magically imbue our team with all the necessary superpowers to support a delivery process characterized by a steady and constant flow, using a visible, pull based system, supported by the values of a grassroots, problem solving culture.

Marvel superheroes avatars

Choose the right avatars based on issues that your team is experiencing...

Almost any of the mighty Marvel avatars can bring immediate benefit to your project, it’s important to select the right ones and assign them to the right team key members depending on the issues that your team and project are experiencing. Here’s an example of some of the really useful superpowers that the mighty Marvel avatars can bring to your individual team members to better support flow, a steady cadence of delivery, and short cycle times.


Despite the best efforts of our team, work was still being pushed through the system in large, and uneven batches. Use good old Spidey to support the pulling of work. With the aid of his trusty web shooter, Spidey is able to pull work that is in the "ready" state from a previous processed queue. What makes assigning Spiderman to one of your team members even more powerful, is that your friendly neighborhood wall crawler is able to stick to doing work that is actually on the kanban board. When asked to do new work, emergency or otherwise, Spiderman makes sure that work is put onto the appropriate queue as dictated by the policies of the Kanban board (FIFO, high-priority, blocking issue, etc.). This ensures that the delivery of work is executed using a systematic set of rules.


Power man

When requirements just aren’t coming fast enough to feed the downstream development and testing team, assigning power man to one of your team members will give him the strength to literally beat the requirements out of your stake holders. Power man will also muscle everyone to use the kanban board with consistency. In all seriousness, power man’s thick, unbreakable skin allows him to tough it out when it looks tempting for the team to consider going back to the bad old ways of software delivery. Power man will help your team persevere by sticking to his guns and coaching the team so that they continuing to take the time necessary to develop the kanban board, and make sure that all work in progress is being tracked on the board, that the board is kept up-to-date, and that the team stays the course. The benefits of kanban take time to be realized, and only through patience and endurance can lower cycle times, better quality, and other improvements be realized.



Galactus, known as the "Devourer of WIP", will empower your team consume any work in progress that is in excess of the limits put in place on the kanban board. Assigning Galactus to a member of your team team will remind them that work must be finished before new work is started. Galactus’ hunger for excess WIP is legendary, and teams must do their utmost to limit work in progress due to actual capacity of the team lest Galactus mercilessly consume any of this excess inventory leading to a complete waste of work.



Using kanban supports the use of highly specialized resources, and frees the teams from the agile dictate that everyone is responsible for everything. That being said one of the critical principles of kanban is that workers should focus on moving inventory through the entire process, rather than exclusively working within their own skill set. In other words, if a particular process is accumulating too much wip (e.g. testing) than the rest of the team should start helping testers with their work, rather than starting new work within their particular domain. Rogue is the ultimate pinch hitter, she’s able to absorb the super powers of workers from others competencies simply by working with Them, asking intelligent questions, and showing the initiative and willingness to learn from those around her. Rogue is not intimidated by doing work outside of her job description, she’s focused On the success of the entire product, not just a particular phase within a process.


Mr. Fantastic

One of the biggest benefits of the Kanban board is that you can use simple metrics and measurements to quantitatively define how well your team is doing. Taking the time to measure the cycle time of all work, and the proportion of work that is categorized as technical, business value, or emergency, work introduced by defects versus new feature requests can give the team and management dramatic insight into what’s working, what’s not working, and where improvement efforts should be focused. Applying the Mr. Fantastic avatar to one of your team members, will ensure that your team takes the time to write the appropriate data on the kanban board. While individual members will always feel rushed to focus exclusively on the work, taking the time to make sure that all work is categorized according to the appropriate policy, and start dates and end dates are captured will provide a rich set of data that can show if the team is getting better at what it’s doing. Mr. fantastic is a master of taking this data and providing simple dashboards and cumulative flow diagrams that can give insight into which areas of the software delivery value stream is experiencing issues.
Mr. fantastic

There Are Many More Mighty Marvel Avatars to Help You Successfully Adopting Kanban on Your Project

The above is just a sampling of how the appropriate Marvel avatars can apply the right super powers necessary to applying the principles of lean software development and kanban to your project. Focusing on the work, short cycle times and a steady flow of progress has been shown to provide demonstrable improvements on software development projects. Combining kanban and Marvel superheroes is an excellent way to educate your team on the most effective use of the kanban board.



  1. Jeff, We are kids at heart aren't we? Great post. Look forward to the effects!

  2. Absolutely enjoyed that and sounds like a great idea to motivate teams that are looking to adopt Kanban but hitting their heads against the wall.

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  5. Great idea!Being that i hold accountability on the requirements process and understanding the attributes of Powerman and what it takes to get requirements to agreement and sign-off, the relationship is well matched and stands as a reminder of the will required to push forward through various constraints to achieve the required results necessary to hand off to the developer(s). Being that Luke Cage (Powerman) always appeared in Marvel Team Up, this also embodies the partnership, dependency and collaboration of teamwork.