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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Kanban for slaying the external dependency monster in migrations

At some point, every federal IT manager will be faced with challenges from external dependencies. Whether it's working on platform refreshes, cloud or data center migrations or network modernization, workflow processes will inevitably be subject to external forces.

We tend to think of these external forces as vendors, shippers and contractors, but the real dependency monsters are actually internal. External dependencies exist because different duties lead to the creation of separate teams, even on the same project. Governance teams can be separate from technical teams, for example, and various technical teams can be distinct from one another. These internally sourced "external" dependencies also have varying incentive matrices.

Managing such dependencies often requires assistance from subject matter experts or federal staff who can be process handlers or relationship brokers that move a migration along. Two things are needed to maximize process handlers’ time and effort: knowledge of the need and knowledge of its sensitivity.

Visualizing the Kanban approach

Kanban can be a simple yet elegant way to lift the veil from what is actually happening with dependencies and illustrate how they are impacting an agency’s migration process. The word “Kanban” means “card” or “visual signal” in Japanese, and, indeed, the model is represented by a series of columns of cards that represent steps in the development process. It can be used to create a visual model of workflow processes, flows and dependencies. Kanban also can be set up solely to track external requests focused on facilitating block removal and communications.

The key is to keep it simple, flexible and tools-based, facilitating communication with some basic automation so teams can easily spot trends and gather metrics for future use.

There are two basic Kanban processes. The combination IT managers use will depend on their team, timelines and the complexity of their migration workflow.

The embedded process

This process follows a standard Kanban model featuring columns that represent different process steps (i.e., what’s left to do, what’s being done and what has been completed). Tasks are represented by cards placed in appropriate columns.

Agency IT professionals may have a few external dependencies that can be inserted into their processes as additional columns, creating a full value-stream mapping. These external dependency columns become secondary “parking lots,” or backlogs, where work stops until the external dependency is satisfied, after which, tasks can be picked back up again. This is useful for migrations where only a couple of dependency columns may exist.

In addition to the basic card information, it’s often a good idea to add a “date started” and “date needed.” Examples might include some approvals or validation steps, key infrastructure requests, etc. This approach can provide numerous benefits, including greater visibility into processes and where things stand; better communication between stakeholders and team members; and valuable metrics that can be used for escalation, value-stream analytics and lessons learned. With this information in hand, team members can adjust their work to where they can have the most impact.

The external process

This approach involves creating a Kanban board with a single purpose: to manage external dependencies in one location. Here, the Kanban columns remain very basic (for example: “new,” “in-progress” or “done”). The idea is to reflect requests that have been sent to different stakeholders who need to take actions before teams proceed with key areas of their migration projects.

Agency IT professionals can also add horizontal “swim lanes” representing various dependencies. Swim lanes might be set up for user validation, access control,  infrastructure, security or integration teams. Along with “date started” and “date needed,” this is a very simple yet powerful way to show the entire dependency landscape in one location. 

The external process approach offers its own unique benefits. It provides singular visibility and quickly communicates the entire landscape of external dependencies relative to a project. It also allows process handlers to see which items are off schedule so they can jump into action. Teams can more easily spot trends in certain dependency areas.

Finally -- like the embedded process -- they can also receive valuable metrics, including value-stream analytics that can help determine the need for escalation and improvements and can inform lessons learned. 

Simple and effective

Kanban’s simplicity can help IT managers effectively tackle the external dependency monster in its many variants. It can be combined with more formal project management tools and approaches; they do not only apply to agile.

In fact, although Kanban can be most effectively used for efforts involving repeatable processes, such as migrations, it can also be an effective “status-ing” and communication tool for external dependency risk for nearly any project. It’s a great way to slay multiple types of external dependency beasts -- including those that come from within.

About the Author

Eric Protzman is program manager at Macro Solutions.

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