Beyond the 3 Project Management Constraints – The Agile Kanban Contribution 

Traditionally Project Management has identified three constraints that must be managed to achieve success on any project, namely:

  • Time: or the schedule, to meet deadlines and deliver
  • Money: our available budget, and financial resources
  • Scope: extent of work that has to be performed.

Collectively they are known as the Project Management Triangle, and for decades they have been the focal point for the project manager’s efforts.

Lately however the Project Management Institute (PMI) and Agile Kanban have noticed that this simplistic 3 constraint model is incomplete. PMI today does add three new constraints: Risk, Quality and Resources, while leaving the door open to even more constraints that might be identified (PMBOK 4th. Edition, page 6.)

On this article however, I’d like to focus on Kanban’s contribution to the classical 3 constraint model. One that I believe is sometimes overlooked, because it gets lost in the details of the Kanban Method itself. Although I have not seen these constraints formally identified before, they are fundamental to the Kanban Method and they are present in most documents from different authors.

Luckily any reader familiar with Project Management should be able to follow this discussion, without knowing the Kanban method. However, for those who would like a quick introduction I recommend the following: Dr. Dobbs Introduction to Kanban, the Kanban Definitions by the Limited WIP Society.

In my opinion, Kanban identifies 4 additional key constraints for a project success:  

  1. Value –  Mission First
  2. Flow – Healthy pace
  3. Focus – Less is More or LWIP
  4. Waste – Quality by default

On this blog post I will concentrate on the first two.

1. Value – Mission First

“A Kanban System visualizes some unit of value.” Karl Scotland, founding member Lean Software and Systems Consortium.

Unlike other Project Management methods, the Kanban Method emphasizes that we must first identify what is the key value the system must deliver, and then improve on it. 

We can see this focus on value at the micro project level on this typical scenarios Kanban ask us to answer: what value does this User Story delivers?, What is the purpose of this Requirement? What do we really need to deliver for this Minimal Marketable Feature to deliver value to the customer?, What is the key value we are delivering in this project?

At the macro level the Kanban Method can evaluate whole departments and even an organization by mapping the value stream and asking: how can we deliver more value? How can we improve from here? How can this department deliver more reliable code? What do we need to do to ensure the customer is satisfied with our customer service? How can we reduce time to market for our key new product? How can we foster innovation at our development department?

Once people, and management start thinking in terms of delivering value, not just for shareholders, but for every person on the organization, value creation in the company grows and a culture of Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) is born. 


2. Flow – Healthy Pace

“Are we outraged that work-life balance is considered the pursuit of the soft, lazy and uncommitted?… Are we outraged that overtime working is expected?” David Anderson. Speech at UK Lean Conference, 2009.

Kanban sees Flow, and the optimization of workflow as fundamental to a project success. It optimizes flow by identifying bottlenecks, and using a variety of tools (mostly from the Theory of Constraints) to remove or minimize bottleneck impact.

Some of the tools used to identify bottlenecks are: work flow diagrams, demand analysis, and the Five Focusing Steps from the Theory of Constraints. By using those tools Kanban is able to make continuos improvement to the overall flow of work, and keep progress steady and predictable.

However Kanban does not recommend Flow optimization so high that workers can barely cope, and it strongly discourages over-work. It advocates sustainable pace, and therefore work-life balance. A good Kanban Flow must have slack so that the people who work on the system, can remain productive, healthy and motivated.

Comments, contributions? Do let me know. Next week I will cover the last two constraints.

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About Joseph Hurtado

Agile Innovator, Agile Program Manager and Coach. Author of the Kanban-Ace framework, SAFe SPC 4, and Scrum CSM. Founded @AgileLionInst to offer Kanban-Ace training & certification.