Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Valerie McLean believes that people, collaboration and communication can achieve amazing things. Currently spending her days as an agile coach and mum of one.

Battle of the frameworks - Kanban vs Scrum

I was asked by a colleague recently to explain to them the differences between Kanban and Scrum. My first thought was easy, no problem! But as soon as I started to explain it I realised I couldn’t coherently describe the differences and pros and cons off the top of my head - I kept getting a little lost. The two frameworks have become such second nature to me that I struggled to take that step back to evaluate their uses and value.

So I told my colleague I would write something up. The below is what I came up with. It was a really good exercise for me, but I found it really challenging. Getting back to basics, remembering the real uses for each and where they can really be used to benefit a team.

I wanted to help my colleagues understand that there is more than one way to achieve agility and it is so incredibly dependent on your circumstances at the time. I also wanted to help them choose their best path when working with teams now and in the future.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, thought I’d share. :)

Kanban vs Scrum 

Kanban and Scrum are both frameworks and tools that can be used by teams who are aiming to work in a more agile way. Other frameworks include Crystal, XP, Evo, among others. 

Both approaches are useful in completely different ways: 

Kanban 

Kanban is a flow-based system, which uses work in progress limits to help identify process bottlenecks as well as keep a focus on getting work finished, rather than starting lots of things and not finishing them. It aims to find predictability through this flow – over time, and by optimising the process, outcomes are achieved faster and in a predictable way. Kanban works well in a fast-paced ever-changing environment, with teams who are looking to visualise their work in progress or focus more on finishing things. 

Scrum 

Scrum is a framework where a team works in time-boxed increments, called ‘sprints’. The team works with their product owner to decide what should be the main aim of a sprint and works through the time box to achieve those goals through carrying out various tasks. This framework has a lot more structure to it and aims to find predictability through the team being able to achieve a predictable amount in the timebox. It works well where there is a well defined backlog for a product, which needs to be shipped in small increments and with teams and organisations who feel more comfortable with more structure. 

A word of warning 

It should be noted, however, that neither of these frameworks is a goal in itself. If the work and value created is being compromised due to the framework of choice, it should be changed. It is not uncommon for teams to switch between these two frameworks regularly, dependent on their situation, team maturity, workload and current status of work in progress. 

Pros and Cons 

The Pros and Cons of each frame work are totally dependent on the team, the work it is doing and its maturity as a group of people. The below will take you through the pros and cons for a team at the very start of its journey, followed by a stable team which has been working together for a good amount of time. This should help demonstrate that changing approach is sometimes needed, dependent on your environment and individual circumstances. 

From a new team’s perspective 

New teams are just that, new. They may not only be new to agile ways of working, but may also be new to each other and new to their project or product. Whatever frame work is chosen has to be easy for them to understand and digest with so much other information to take in.

Advantages of Scrum 

  • Clear defined roles 

  • The structure gives traditional managers a feeling of security. 

  • The timeboxed structure allows the team to have predictability on their schedules. 

  • Clear defined feedback loops. 

  • Scrum Master role keeps the focus on continuous improvement, for both the people and process side. 

Disadvantages of Scrum 

  • You need enough work ready to go before you start to fill a couple of sprints, so value can be delayed. 

  • If you don’t have all of the elements in place and working, it loses its value. 

  • It can be easily misunderstood if not given the support of a strong Scrum Master. 

  • Trying to fit all the structure in can be detrimental to the product. 

  • It needs a full time team to be effective. 

  • Very much created for software delivery, not so much use in other environments. 

  • If people aren’t available for the events (especially stakeholders for the review) the product team can get lost in delivery without the insight to pivot if needed. 

  • It takes a long time to get predictability as velocity can take 4-6 sprints to stabilise. 

Advantages of Kanban 

  • You can start working as soon as you have something ready to start, delivering value early. 

  • Can be applied in stages to bring a team on a journey. 

  • The tools can be applied to any type of work, not just software delivery. 

  • It is flexible and easy to adapt to your own situation. 

  • It allows a team working on multiple products or working part time to have the flexibility of approach. 

  • Predictability can stabilise quickly due to the amount of cycle time data available as individual tasks move through the stages. 

Disadvantages of Kanban 

  • No defined roles 

  • If there isn’t someone to steer the adoption of the framework, it can fail quickly. (i.e. there is no ScrumMaster-type role required) 

  • It can lose focus if the team don’t have a clear direction. 

  • There are no assigned sessions or cadences – the team needs to ensure they inspect, adapt and plan effectively using other tools. 

From a mature team’s perspective 

You may notice that a lot of the previous advantages are now seen as disadvantages. This is typical as a team develops and becomes used to agile ways of working. They grow as a group and are able to start holding each other accountable for their actions and can inspect and adapt themselves and their processes without as much prompting as they would have needed in the beginning. 

Advantages of Scrum 

  • A clear structure 

  • If the team is well established and is able to estimate their effort well, scrum can be really effective for planning and predictability. 

Disadvantages of Scrum 

  • It can become quite restrictive for a team who has identified a better way for them. 

  • The set framework and sessions can mean that a mature team becomes quite slow to react to changes needed, due to the feeling they need to wait for a retrospective to bring up issues, or wait for a sprint review to get feedback, which can slow down progress. 

Advantages of Kanban 

  • More flexibility on approach for a team that understands what it is doing. 

  • Good predictability if the team understands the cycle time metric and uses it to their advantage. 

  • No set cadences mean that issues can come to the surface and be dealt with faster, as people may learn not to wait for the next suitable session and collaborate more effectively. 

Disadvantages of Kanban 

  • Without a Scrum Master-type role, team following kanban can easily fall into bad habits and lose some of the value that this role brings 

  • Without set cadences, the team can fall out of the habit of inspecting and adapting themselves and their work frequently enough 

Enablers of any framework 

Any agile framework needs certain environmental enablers in place to be truly successful. The whole list isn’t always easily achievable, but having as many of the below in place as possible, will give you the best chance of success. 

  • An engaged stakeholder base 

  • Access to users 

  • A product owner who is available for the team 

  • Governance and procurement structures which allow for iterative approaches to work. 

  • An organisation which is open to changing direction based on lessons learned in both a product and process space. 

  • A team which is available and happy to try this approach 

  • A safe and positive environment 

Certified Agile Leadership 1 - My experience