Scrum vs. Kanban – Suitability and Benefits of Agile Methods for Legal Work

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Janice Linden Reed, president of Lean Kanban Inc., says Kanban shows us how our work works. At first you are alienated by this statement, because you see yourself as “high performing” and “Top Professional” in your job and you don’t need anyone – and especially no new method – to be shown what you already know. If you overcome this reflex and get involved with Kanban, you will be richly rewarded with insights into your own actions and your own job, and gain design possibilities for your own and your team’s work.

Kanban originates from manufacturing and pursues the goal of reducing stocks and controlling integrated production sequences at optimal cost. In the service sector, it is used to define, manage and improve systems that provide value-based services to customers. In knowledge work, the performance outcome is composed of information of different forms from different people. Production can be understood as a process of knowledge discovery and use with associated process rules.

In all Kanban approaches, the focus is on optimizing the value chain as a whole. While the agile Scrum methodology primarily focuses on the optimal production of an increment, i.e. a deliverable part, Kanban focuses on the overall process and, thus, on all stages of production. In fact, the pull principle, self-regulation and steady flow can also be found as constituent features in Kanban.

With Kanban, it is possible to shorten production and processing times and increase efficiency. Above all, specific metrics are created that allow expenses and times to be reliably estimated. Furthermore, the work with the customer, the customer interface, can be integrated and controlled very well. It is precisely these aspects that make the method so suitable in the context of digitization, where customer satisfaction and experience, combined with reliable statements, are often crucial. Another important aspect is that the method has a low inherent resistance to change and allows decentralized work at different project speeds.

Start where you are! Respect! Avoid Criticism!

Due to the positive effects and as a system for providing value-oriented services, Kanban is almost perfectly suited as an organizational principle and continuous optimization model for law firms and legal departments. We start our fictitious Kanban project, as it could be realized in a larger law firm with partners and associated teams or in a legal department, with the teams documenting their daily work routine over a week. Work packages are to be identified and measured on a time slice. In order to get comparable results in the team and between the teams, we agree on daily team meetings in which the team members present how the last working day went. In doing so, we work with a fixed time limit for the meeting and for the speaking time per person. The similarities with Scrum are easily recognizable.

The meetings are prepared and conducted by a colleague from the team (Kanban coach), who documents the results. Kanban, unlike Scrum, does not have own roles, but is based on the existing structures. Based on our experience, it is important to give the Kanban project visibility with the help of the roles in the enterprise and decision-making authority to the acting persons. In addition, knowledge development and qualification can be better controlled by means of a clearly defined team.

For the work with the operative teams, we agree that the statements and measured values of the team members are not commented and especially not criticized (“avoid criticism”). Joint reporting and controlling feedback are core elements of Kanban. Ideally, the values of respect and transparency as well as the principle of evolutionary change – start with what you do and proceed in small steps – can be experienced. What can be experienced in any case is the empirical element that characterizes Kanban by analogy with Scrum.

Be visual! Kanban and the Work-In-Progress Limit

After a project week, the data are evaluated together. A work package describes a service that can be performed by a person with certain skills without support and auxiliary services from third parties without interruption – i.e. smoothly – within a defined time unit (tact). For each work package, the predecessor and successor are identified; in addition, it is clarified what must be available for the package to be processed “smoothly” (ready to do/RTD) and what must be completed for the work package to be considered done (definition of done/DOD). RTD and DOD often take the form of checklists and specify formal requirements.

A work package is described with the help of a card. The card notes RTD, DOD, tact (target time), and required skill level. Work results (products) consisting of several work packages can be represented as holders (containers) in which the work packages (cards) are transported during sequential production.

As a second result format for the evaluation, boards with statuses are used alongside cards. The simplest board has three status categories: “To do”, “Work in progress” and “Done”. Depending on the status of work, cards are put in the respective columns. This visualization approach with cards (work packages) that signal the production status by their location on the board is characteristic of Kanban. The cards move through the board and visualize the work flow.

The potential achievements and abilities of the team are also visualized on a Kanban board. Often, mixed forms of skill level and time limitation are used. For example, employees are assigned to individual production levels on which they are allowed to work. At the same time, the number of work packages that an employee is allowed to work on is limited. The work-in-progress limit (WIPL) is central to achieving optimization goals, and finding the right WIPL is by no means trivial.

“Stop starting, start finishing! Digitization and pressure for efficiency entail the need to respond quickly and without delay to changing requirements and/or framework conditions. In such an environment, the agile Kanban method provides a set of rules that helps to respond quickly and in a targeted manner. Kanban has “balance” as a core value and as a stated principle to manage the flow of work while people and teams organize themselves. It takes time and deliberate experimentation to find the optimal WIP limits.

After the initial evaluation meeting, the results are presented to the individual teams and discussed. The teams commit to working with the boards and the project enters the second week. By analogy with Scrum, a continuous improvement process now begins. One week at a time, data is measured and collected, then evaluated, suggestions for improvement are developed and communicated to the teams.

The Kanban tools must evolve over time; iterative and experimental approaches are intentional and essential for success. In each project week it should be clearly marked which approach and rules are currently being tested and which are currently considered set. After a certain time, the respective experiment is discussed and declared as set (Keep), adjusted again (Try) or discarded as unsuitable (Drop).

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it!

The longer one works with the method of continuous improvement, the more stable the results become. As a rule, however, the optimization potentials also become smaller and smaller, which can be tapped directly without further ado. Now, at the latest, it is time to develop and introduce key figures, metrics and explicit rules for processing work orders or creating intangible products (Standard Operating Procedures/SOP). The key is to work with as few metrics and rules as possible. Few but meaningful key figures characterize a successful Kanban implementation.

A Kanban board visualizes the work flow and establishes automated control loops. With the data generated from this process, it becomes increasingly possible to control the “production” of intangible services, to achieve a more even and better performing workload and to eliminate bottlenecks in a targeted manner. In addition, the customer experience can be improved based on the data through suitable service level agreements. In the case of automation, the use of legal technology, the RTD and DOD checklists and the associated data are ideal prerequisites for selecting the right systems and optimally deploying them.

Take aways

The short explanations give a first impression of how Kanban can work in the daily legal work routine. By analogy with Scrum, it is transparency, pairing, and above all balance and a steady flow of work that must often first become part of the work culture in the organizational units. In addition, there is the hurdle of needing know-how from the operations research area, and it is very difficult, especially in partner organizations, to establish a service delivery team that initially and in the medium term supports the change process, but then even controls the service delivery. It remains to be seen whether the competitive pressure is already strong enough to trigger such a culture change.

Editor`s note: Please take a look at Erbeldinger/Bresching in GoingDigital 2/2020, 26: (please see here

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