As organizations move towards becoming leaner and striving to deliver high quality products and services — the Kanban method offers a potentially powerful solution across all types of companies and business functions. We spoke to AV Sridhar — Co-Founder, President & CEO of Digité, to gather his perspective on the subject and learn about their Lean/ Kanban based Visual Project Management software — SwiftKanban.
Zinnov: What are your thoughts on lean & agile industry? What are the recent trends in the space and how are you trying to align to those trends?
AVS: The Agile movement started in the late 90s/ early-2000s & has gathered momentum in recent years with customers expecting faster software development that better meets business needs. There’s tremendous pressure on software industry & we have seen changes in the methodologies used for development, testing, release & deployment. Depending on the industry & the type of software, software releases are done within days or weeks and deployed through automation. The fundamental area that Agile & Lean focus on is delivering the feature set to the customer on the cloud. While Agile greatly solved the problems of Waterfall, it remains a time bucketed method, with some of the same challenges of waterfall, only at a smaller scale. Our product, SwiftKanban, implements the Kanban method that tries to eliminate these challenges and fits in with current paradigm of continuous integration & deployment. It does not compete with Agile but is rather complementary to it, where customers expect even faster delivery & deployment. We feel that just as the Agile movement started in early 2000s, the Kanban movement started around 2008–09 & is gaining widespread following, especially in the Agile community. David Anderson is one of the leading thought leaders in the Lean/ Agile community who pioneered the Kanban Method and we have worked closely with him to make sure that we can bring his concepts into a product & as a solution to our customers.
Zinnov: What does Kanban bring in for a development team and how does it add value to their work?
AVS: Kanban is based on concept of continuous flow and delivery, similar to the functioning of line manufacturing, where it has its origins. We have seen scenarios in the software development industry where work can be stuck at a point in the overall chain, resulting in inefficiencies and delays. One of the fundamental principles of Kanban is to focus on the flow of work through a system. A smooth flow indicates that everyone is operating in an optimized manner ensuring up to the mark output. The second principle that Kanban emphasizes is based on the saying “one thing at a time, best done” that makes certain that a developer or tester focuses on one work item at a point of time. Due to the tremendous pressure to deliver, people often try to do multiple jobs at a time in different projects/ areas. Contrary to popular belief, such multi-tasking actually reduces the effectiveness of work and reduces the output quality. Kanban emphasize the need to limit the work-in-progress (WIP) a person has at a time, which dramatically helps reduce the lead time to do that work. Finally, in the context of software, the Kanban method helps teams move away from pre-defined pre-estimated sprints and releases. Instead, it encourages making releases early and often. In our case at Digité, we make a production release as soon as we have enough features or enhancements or even defect-fixes ready to be released. Instead of having lot of features packed in one unit & eventually finding that it suffers several quality issues, we make small(er) releases more often and with high quality. Overall, Kanban ensures that a high quality feature set is delivered in least amount of time, where all wastages & wait times in the entire system are removed.
Figure 1: Illustrative Kanban Board Source: Digité Website
Zinnov: Where does DevOps fit in all of this?
AVS: In the context of high frequency (continuous) delivery and deployment that businesses and customers are looking for in today’s environment, DevOps becomes a key enabler. DevOps is nothing but a culture of collaboration between the traditional Dev and Ops/ IT folks on the one hand, it also means a technology environment where there is integration and automation of development, testing, build, release and deployment tools that all enable requirements to be continually worked on, developed and deployed to production.
Kanban’s role in DevOps is significant. It helps visualize the entire DevOps value stream and helps different teams — product management, engineering, testing, documentation and Ops/ Infra teams — to be aware of what each team is doing and to effectively collaborate throughout the lifecycle of a sprint or a release.
Our own dev environment of SwiftKanban is a great example of a DevOps team at work! While we don’t yet have the business pressure of doing multiple deployments a day or even a week, we certainly have the capability to do so, if called upon. Kanban plays a big part in helping us all achieve a mind-set that gets us there.
Figure2: DevOps workflow Source: Digité Website
Zinnov: What are the deployment & pricing models of SwiftKanban?
AVS: It is available as both On-premise and SaaS model. There is a gradual shift of large customers from On-premise to SaaS based model. The mid-tier & smaller customers prefer the SaaS model. We offer different modules at team level, group level & enterprise level which are priced differently. The Team version is a free version for very small teams and for Personal Kanban, since Kanban can be used for personal self-organization with variety of uses such as monitoring SAT preparation, managing home-related chores, etc. We a 30-day free trial so people can try and buy.
We also provide training and consulting services on Kanban for those organizations making their first forays into Lean/ Kanban. We have consultants on our staff who have Kanban Consulting Coach and Accredited Kanban Trainer certifications from David Anderson’s Lean Kanban University.
Zinnov: How much time does it take for a team to start afresh & realise benefits out of it.
AVS: As a tool, SwiftKanban is intuitive and easy to pick up and use. We also provide training that doesn’t require much time to cover the overall product. Typically, customers, tend to buy 10–20 licenses for a team which can expand to 100–150 licenses quickly. Larger companies tend to have more organized procurement and training programs. Typically, a team should be able to drive value out of the product within a month.
A key dependency for the success of a SwiftKanban implementation is for the team or organization to have committed to implementing Kanban and getting value out of its core principles. Most of our customers tend to be like that.
Zinnov: Who are the core competitors? What are core value propositions & differentiators that you have?
AVS: Kanban can be said to still be in an early stage, where we must evangelize what exactly Kanban is & how is it useful.
People often mistake it for simple board based visualization, whereas Kanban is much deeper than that and solves specific problems of flow, lead time, demand and capacity utilization, risk mitigation and cost of delay for an enterprise.
For organizations that get it, SwiftKanban is an ideal product. The market has simple visualization tools such as Trello on the one end. Then there are pure Kanban tools such as SwiftKanban, Leankit, Kanbanize and a few others. Then there are the Agile products that now have some level of Kanban capability bolted on such as JIRA, Rally, VersionOne and a few others.
Our biggest strength is our fidelity to the Kanban Method and our association with David Anderson. Today, SwiftKanban is widely regarded as the best implementation of the Kanban Method. This includes things such as our board modelling capability, our Kanban-based metrics and several cool and innovative features that help software and other teams manage their work in a Lean/ Agile environment.
One such feature that we provide is the replay feature. Users “play back” their Kanban board for any time period and see why a certain project was delayed or could it have done better. It is archiving complete events in real time-manner, or in other words replaying the entire events like a video & analysing it. It is a very important feature for teams to gain insights from their past work.
Another breakthrough aspect of SwiftKanban is that we make use of the Monte Carlo simulation, (a statistical technique that enables modelling a process, simulating it over 1000s and 1000s of times and drawing a probability curve to predict the outcomes of milestones such as release dates, project completion, etc. This helps organizations to make SLA commitments and account for risk in quantitative analysis and decision making.
At the enterprise level, we have Enterprise Services Planning (ESP) to align and synchronize various enterprise functions for a smooth flow of products and services across the Enterprise. With ESP, teams can decide which areas to focus on to be able to smoothen the flow & achieve a predictable & reliable output. ESP provides answers such as how much time would It might take for a set of work items (such as user stores in a release) to be completed given a specific environment.
Zinnov: Which are most important market segments to you? Which segment is growing fastest?
AVS: SwiftKanban can be used for any segment. Our customers are using it for HR, Marketing, Advertisement, Healthcare, Telecom, Software & IT. While Software and IT form the largest base, the Kanban principles along with the visual management capabilities lends itself very well to any organization looking at continuous improvement in complex process flow scenarios.
Zinnov: Could you provide us a broad customer profile that you are currently catering to? What are the benefits they have derived and any major incidence of productivity gains from your client(s)?
AVS: We have customers from diverse industry background, with IT & Tech-focused being the key customer segments. These customers have different licences depending on number of users. We have large customers with 2,000+ users, with the likes of Huawei, Amazon & United Health. They started with small teams, and now have a user base of thousands. It speaks of how useful customers find the product to be & kept on widening its usage.
We have had customer feedback saying their team level productivity increased 60%- 150%. The very fact that customers started small & scaled up to 2,000–3,000 licenses indicates they find the product very useful.
Zinnov: Where do you see the industry going & where are you planning to take your product?
AVS: Being a SaaS company, I would like to see exponential growth. There has been uptake of Kanban at various agile conferences & agile practitioners adopting the solution. I see Kanban moving into agile & scrum areas and growing at a phenomenal pace, and we would like to ride with the wave.
Kanban is gaining acceptance across a variety of domains. On the one hand, in software itself, the Agile community has embraced it wholeheartedly in the context of Scaled Agile. Kanban is an integral part of the SAFe 4.0 framework, for example. Across a wide range of Agile conferences, we see agile teams, practitioners and thought leaders speak about Kanban as an integral part of an enterprise’ tools for achieving enterprise agility. At the same time, Kanban is considered to be quote suited to IT/ Ops and DevOps teams where there is greater emphasis on discrete work and continuous delivery.
On the other hand, with its broader applicability in non-tech functions, Kanban can potentially grow significantly in sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing, construction and engineering, wherever Lean is seen as a high-value proposition; and several of our customers have validated this. Besides that, Kanban’s use in general knowledge work such as marketing, HR, legal, procurement, etc. makes it a widely applicable tool.
At the same time, at a completely different level, enterprises are constantly dealing with business challenges such as changing market conditions, resource availability and customer demand. Traditionally, portfolio management tools have tried to address this problem — but have largely failed to really help or have remained in the IT domain. With Enterprise Services Planning, and our tool SwiftESP, I believe we will provide a power tool for executive teams and portfolio managers to do enterprise strategy and service delivery planning using SwiftESP.
My hope is that we can lead this movement and make SwiftKanban, SwiftESP and SwiftALM, as the choice of tools/ solutions for enterprises to plan and deliver on their enterprise business strategy effectively and successfully.