Are you working on the right things? Even if you have a well-established downstream process, to be able to deliver actual value to your customers and translate output to an outcome, you need to narrow down the funnel of options that go into your delivery workflow. That’s the realm of Upstream Kanban.

The downstream process always will be the bottleneck of your value stream. Balancing demand and capability is the cornerstone to delivering results quickly and efficiently. That’s how you do things right.

However, with a constant stream of customer requests coming in, how do we maintain that balance? How do we manage the work on the top of the funnel, to make sure we are making the right decisions?

It’s imperative to establish an upstream process to reduce the available options by selecting those that make the most sense for your business and your customers.

Let’s unravel the concept of Discovery Kanban and the 5-step process to set up your upstream workflow.

What is Upstream Kanban?

Upstream Kanban or Discovery Kanban is how Kanban practitioners refer to the part of the value stream that corresponds to the development of options or product discovery. In other words, it represents all the activities that need to take place before you actually start developing software.

The concept was initially introduced by Patrick Steyaert in his book Essential Upstream Kanban and later on, it was developed further by Kanban University.

For product teams, discovery is an essential part of their work. The upstream workflow must be visible and explicit to engage the whole organization towards improved business agility.

The purpose of Discovery Kanban is to manage the stream of incoming requests effectively before committing to the work to ensure a sustainable flow of customer value.

Upstream Kanban and Downstream Kanban

In the example above, we have two Kanban systems – Upstream and Downstream. Together, they expose the end-to-end software development process, starting from initially seizing the idea up until the moment the work is delivered to the customer.

The downstream process is managed by the delivery team, while the upstream process is managed by the stakeholders who request work from the team. Business representatives and development teams should collaborate effectively throughout the entire value stream and share a common understanding of these processes and their expected outcomes.

Let’s explore the 5-step guide to set up your upstream system.

The 5-Step Process to Narrowing Down Your Options

Establishing an effective upstream process consists of 5 steps:

  1. Mapping your discovery workflow
  2. Defining your commitment point
  3. Creating explicit policies
  4. Establishing a regular replenishment meeting
  5. Identifying the point of diminishing returns

Let’s go through each of them in more detail.

#1 Map Your Discovery Process

The first step to narrowing down your customer requests is to visualize the process of knowledge discovery.

Mapping your upstream process is very similar to how you visualize your delivery process. Think about the steps you follow from when the idea is first added to your backlog to the moment that it is ready for development.

Map the activities into the columns of a board and, as you discover more information about the work, move the cards through the columns. As with everything else in Kanban, continuous improvement is the bedrock of your upstream process. As time passes, make sure your system design represents the reality and, as you reveal opportunities for improvement, don’t hesitate to change it.

#2 Define Your Commitment Point

Once you have mapped your discovery process, you should define your commitment point.

Unambiguously, the commitment point is a line of commitment. It splits your upstream from your downstream process. Once a work item has moved through the commitment point, it is no longer considered optional.

Upstream Kanban: Commitment Point

By moving the work from upstream to downstream, essentially you are making a two-way commitment. Business representatives commit by communicating that the work is ready for implementation, they understand it and they are willing to invest in it. By pulling the work into the downstream process, the delivery team confirms they have everything they need to initiate the work and they commit to delivering it.

#3 Create Explicit Policies

The third step in the process of narrowing down your options is to create explicit policies. At this point, you should define how the work in the upstream should be managed.

Map out all the rules that the work should follow as it moves through the upstream system. You can use techniques like Definition of Ready, Triage and Time Guillotine to make the process explicit.

Having policies in place provides transparency in how the decisions are being made, which creates alignment between everyone involved. It sets the foundation for your upstream workflow, which can be improved upon as you develop your management practices.

#4 Introduce a Replenishment Meeting

The next step is to introduce a Replenishment meeting. There comes a point in time where we do need to decide which options can be converted into commitments.

We don’t want to commit early, because committing early implies that we have a lot of certainty about the future from the very beginning, and that’s almost never the case in knowledge work. So, we need to be very thoughtful in how we go about evaluating our options and deciding what we should commit to now, later or never.

Scheduling regular Replenishment meetings to decide what to work on next is essential to selecting the most important work and bringing the most value to your customers right now.

#5 Identify the Point of Diminishing Returns

The last step of the process to narrowing down your options is to understand the point of diminishing returns.

At the very beginning, when an option arrives in your backlog, you discover information about it in a very short period of time. Your confidence in handling the work increases quickly. As time passes by, the speed of discovering new information is slowing down and with it, your costs increase.

Upstream Kanban: the Point of Diminishing Returns

At the moment you realize that you are not discovering any new knowledge about the work, you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. This is the moment where you should decide what to do next – should you invest in the work and convert it to a commitment, should you wait until there is a better opportunity to initiate it, or should you discard it altogether?

Kanban for Design & Innovation Class Review

The process of establishing an upstream workflow is covered in much greater detail in the Kanban for Design & Innovation class led by David Anderson and Anna Radzikowska. The class is split into 4 half-day training sessions to provide guidance on how to improve your Kanban systems with a focus on Upstream Kanban.

This is just a tiny part of the knowledge spectrum the class reveals. It outlines a roadmap to increasing organizational maturity using an evolutionary change management approach. Making small incremental steps builds up to a massive improvement in a very short period of time without meeting resistance.

Upstream Kanban Exercise

The curriculum covers very simple though powerful strategies to improving cross-organizational collaboration. If you’re interested in scaling business agility without causing disruptive change, this class is for you!

When you check out with the code SoSide15, you can access these novel modern product management concepts with 15% off! Places are selling out by the day so it’d be best to book your seat in advance.

Doing things right is a great start, but none of it would make sense if you’re not doing the right things.

Most Kanban adoptions only stick out to the delivery workflow. Don’t fall into this trap. Scaling Kanban is all about doing more Kanban. Strive to expand the reach of your Upstream system. This approach will give you an immediate direction towards achieving sustainable business agility.

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