Julien Déray

Julien Déray's blog

All the posts | Written on February 22, 2021

Kanban & the Cargo Cult

Have you even heard of the Cargo Cult? It has been first observed in Melanesia during World War II. Wikipedia quote:

Isolated and pre-industrial island cultures that were lacking technology found soldiers and supplies arriving in large numbers, often by airdrop. The soldiers would trade with the islanders. After the war, the soldiers departed. Cargo cults arose, attempting to imitate the behaviors of the soldiers, thinking that this would cause the soldiers and their cargo to return. Some cult behaviors involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.

We can draw a lot of parallels with how Agile Methodologies are sometimes used: adopt practices we heard about, did not understand, and expect the same result.

The stand-up

We probably all do stand-ups every morning: it has become a norm in our industry. But I am amazed by how few actually know and understand the purpose of this ceremony. We have dedicated an article to Kanban’s specific stand-up and noted the differences with Scrum’s “Daily Scrum”. To summarise, there are many different ways to implement a stand-up, so make sure you ask yourself what you want to achieve before falling into the classic “Yesterday I did this, today I’ll do that”.

The Board

One cannot use a “Kanban Board” with just “Todo, Doing, Done” and expect a sudden boost of productivity and clarity over the flow of work. A board is not a Kanban board without WIP limits and double columns. The double columns allow you to visualise the life cycle of every card, know when they are idle and active, and enables the pulling system. WIP limits constrain your flow and show you the bottlenecks. As much as we love Trello, it is not a Kanban tool.


“Agile” doesn’t mean “disorganised”. Having a clear commitment line (like an Input column) is extremely important to be aligned with the Agile principles, stay organised and deliver value to the user. This will help you Stop starting and start finishing.


When thinking about Agile Methodologies we often picture the “Scrum Poker” and heated conversations about a User Story being a 3 or a 5. In Kanban the Work Items in the same Class of Service should always be roughly the same size. Which means you don’t need any estimations. The goal of Scrum Poker (or “refinements”) is to be able to compare the User Stories with their relative complexity and build a Sprint Backlog as close as possible to the team’s velocity. In Kanban this is done by setting your WIP limits correctly.

I could write many more but I suppose you get the idea. Please share with us you best Agile Cargo Cult in comments! Let’s finish by a quite famous quote in the Scrum community that, I believe, can be applied to the whole Agility practice:

Scrum is like teenage sex: everyone says they’re doing it; few people really are; and those that are, aren’t doing it right.

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