Kanban and Organizational Permaculture

This post identifies an agricultural technique (actually an agricultural-sustainability hack) called permaculture.

Permaculture principles and practices associate with culture hacking in general, and Kanban (in particular.)

A full set of links for all footnotes are provided at the end of this post.

Culture Hacking, Permaculture and Kanban

Kanban is a method for managing work and work flow. It is visual, and exposes certain things that are going on within a group doing work, and makes those things explicit. In the canonical form of Kanban, it imposes at least SOME structure by also making policies explicit, limiting work-in-progress, and so on. (If you need a primer on Kanban you can reference link [3] to catch up).

Organizationally, it’s hard to object to Kanban, in part because it does not ask very much of you– at least at first. There are few if any  anxiety-triggering changes in current roles, goals, meetings, and artifacts. This makes it easy for everyone to relax, and opt-in to the Kanban game, because Kanban, at least at first, does not seem to demand very much of you. Kanban is something that is easy to insert into the situation. And that ‘something’ is a refocusing of attention on things that matter to work groups, things like “the type of work we are doing”, “the flow of that work”, “the regulation of those flows”, and the like.

Now I want you to notice that when you introduce Kanban, you are actually engaging in the introduction and composition of new elements with existing elements in ways that are complimentary. Repeat: With Kanban, you are engaging in the introduction and composition of new elements with existing elements in ways that are complimentary.

Which brings us to the fascinating topic of permaculture.


Permaculture is a form of agriculture. It is a discipline of design and composition that leads to the sustainable extraction of value from the resulting system. Rather than make wide-scope changes, permaculture practitioners compose complimentary elements in service to sustainability of yield:

Permaculture asks the question, “Where does this element go? How can it be placed for the maximum benefit of the system?” To answer this question, the central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input. (Source: Wikipedia [4] )

It’s drop-dead obvious that Kanban is an application of permaculture applied to low-producing social-systems instead of low-producing tracts of land.

Intrigued? Check out these 12 Principles of Permaculture…as you examine the list, map the permaculture concepts listed to what is going on inside Kanban implementations as described in the book KANBAN by David Anderson [5]:

Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Source: Wikipedia Permaculture Design Principles [6]

Is understanding the language of permaculture a key to understanding and implementing effective culture change in organizations? Probably!

What’s interesting is how the language of agricultural permaculture supports the best incremental-culture-change ideas found in my book THE CULTURE GAME book [2] and the KANBAN book from David Anderson [3].


Kanban…is permaculture…applied to knowledge workers. — Alexis Nicolas (France)


The Organizational Permaculture Approach

Here is even more support for the incremental, here-and-now permaculture approach, from a blog post, by noted complexity-science authority David Snowden [7] :

So if you want to change organizations, three basic principles:

  1. You don’t lecture management on how they are old fashioned in their thinking, instead you put them into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves its sustainable.
  2. You pick off areas where the pain threshold is the highest, for example (to pick up Agile themes) the interaction between approaches such as Agile and the measurement and management practices of the HR function.
  3. You then create approaches that change the measurement and feedback mechanisms that work in parallel with existing methods.

Implications of Organizational Permaculture

  1. Client organizations, coaches and other culture hackers can probably benefit tremendously by studying and applying the core concept of permaculture to the design of interventions. Kanban is an element for designing and composing permaculture learning solutions inside existing organizations.
  2. The most effective culture hacks are probably those that strongly align with the 12 Principles of Permaculture. This likely explains (in part) the success of Kanban [3] and the 16 Culture Game Tribal Learning patterns [2]
  3. We probably need to pay particularly close attention to Kanban case studies, since Kanban is actually a particularly good example of how to introduce and apply permaculture techniques and permaculture thinking to culture change in organizations.
  4. We probably need to search for and find more easy-to-introduce permaculture technologies like Kanban and repeat the pattern. Techniques that can co-exist with what is already there and substantially improve team learning quickly are what we are looking for.


Kanban implementations are significantly aligned with the 12 core principles of agricultural permaculture. Culture change via the incremental permaculture approach is an interesting idea whose time has come. Most effective culture hacks probably have very strong alignment with the 12 Principles of Permaculture.



[1] Kanban and Tribal Learning (link)

[2] The Culture Game Book (link)

[3] Kanban Explained (Wikipedia entry) (link)

[4] Permaculture (Wikipedia entry) (link)

[5] KANBAN: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Business (link)

[6] Wikipedia: Permaculture Design Principles (link)

[7] David Snowden Blog Post with 3 Big Ideas: “Rose Tinting” (link)

Kanban and Tribal Learning

The book THE CULTURE GAME names 16 patterns of learning and describes a means to socialize them throughout your organization. These are called the Tribal Learning patterns in the book. One of these patterns is [Manage Visually]. The book devotes an entire chapter to this powerful learning device. Kanban is referred to frequently in this chapter.

Kanban is more than a simple manager of visual information. When policies are added to Work Item types via the Class of Service feature, Kanban as described in the book KANBAN by David Anderson becomes a powerful interactive game whose goal is to regulate the flow of work and thereby increase overall throughput. Getting into this in detail is beyond the scope of this post. If you are unfamiliar with Kanban I suggest you buy the Kanban book.

In my book THE CULTURE GAME, I describe interactions, meetings, Scrum, Kanban, and membership in social groups (such as teams) as games. But not the kind of games you may be familiar with.  This post summarizes what I mean. The book lays out a framework for “gaming happiness at work” and provides specific steps for doing so. Once again, these topics are beyond the scope of this post. You can learn more about THE CULTURE GAME book here.

This short post looks at Kanban through the lens of the 16 Tribal Learning patterns found in the THE CULTURE GAME book. Exactly how many of the 16 Tribal Learning practices does Kanban implement? The answer may surprise you.

I have identified no fewer than 12 of the 16 Tribal Learning practices implemented directly by Kanban. Not only that, but 3 of the remaining 4 Tribal Learning practices described in THE CULTURE GAME book are indirectly supported by Kanban!

This means Kanban is a very serious device for generating social learning in your organization. It means you have to look at it closely.

Let’s take a look at the rundown:


Tribal Learning Pattern as Described in THE CULTURE GAME book How Kanban Implements the Pattern
Facilitate Your Meetings The periodic Operations Review meeting (described on page 159 in the book Kanban by David Anderson) is a facilitated meeting.
Examine Your Norms Kanban looks at how long things normally take, and calls that ‘cycle time’. This is an explicit examination of actual, normal delivery times
Be Punctual Not applicable, although most teams doing good Kanban value the keeping of commitments, for example commitments to deliver, appointments etc.
Structure Your Interactions Kanban structures interactions with upstream and downstream partners through Policies, Classes of Service, Work Item Types. Internally, the team structures the columns and swim-lanes depicted on the Kanban board.
Announce Your Intent Teams using Kanban announce intent via the Cycle time connected to Classes of Service. Cycle time states the amount of time for delivery to the customer.
Game Your Meetings Kanban has a daily meeting where the ‘Kanban’ game is discussed.
Conduct Frequent Experiments Teams using Kanban experiment with adding columns, swim-lanes and new Classes of Service.
Manage Visually Kanban is many things. It is obviously at least a Visual Management tool, and a very sophisticated one at that.
Inspect Frequently Each day the Kanban team meets in front of the Kanban board, discussing the work, and inspecting it visually.
Get Coached Kanban as defined by the book of the same name does not mandate coaching. In practice however, this is often the case. Teams coached in Kanban use may get benefits more immediately. Here is some proof: a rather authoritative blog post from KANBAN author David Anderson on what Kanban coaches do, and do not do.
Manage Your Boundaries Kanban depicts the beginning and the end of the work flow under consideration. Kanban defines and manages input and output boundaries.
Socialize Books Not applicable, although many Kanban implementations use substantial learning library
Pay Explicit Attention This is ‘the name of the game’ in Kanban. Kanban plays a direct role in manifesting a shared mental model of the work, the work flow, and related subjects.
Open The Space The very act of depicting the work flow explicitly in Kanban tends to open the conversational space about what is true, what is false about important, previously un-discussed topic, for example: work-in-process and related limits
Be Playful Every Kanban board is a custom thing that develops over time. Columns, column names, swim lanes, work items types and more are all up for discussion and experimentation.Users can playfully choose certain stickers (insignia) to mean certain things, etc. Kanban is open to playful experimentation.



Kanban directly implements 12 of the Tribal Learning patterns. As such, Kanban is a serious device for generating Tribal Learning, that is: social, or group learning…or team learning, in your organization.

Kanban is useful for building a shared mental model of the work and work flow. As such, it is serious culture technology and a culture hacking tool for encouraging team learning and innovation in the current culture of your organization.

Agile: Gateway Drug to the Learning Organization

This post is how Agile is really just a gateway drug than can lead to a hard-core habit of Organizational Learning. However, that progression from merely ‘playing Agile’  to becoming a full-blown Learning Organization is by no means guaranteed.


In 1990-1991, Peter Senge wrote a book called THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE. In that book he describes the 5 characteristics of a ‘Learning Organization’. In my view, describing a Learning Organization is far easier than building one. Finding a learning organization as described by Senge is also quite difficult. In fact, it is about as difficult as finding an organization that has implemented and achieved real Agility, what I call Free-Standing Agility.

Agile is a culture hack, and the intent of the hack is to produce a small learning organization- we call it a Team.

What is Agile then?

Agile is a gateway drug to real organizational learning. All of the Agile techniques are in a sense very small A-B-C prescriptions  for learning how to be a Learning Organization.



Task Boards.

Information radiation.



Pair programming.


Burndown charts.

Work-in-process limits.

Test-driven development.


ALL of these practices are nothing more than gateway drugs to the ultimate enterprise high: organizational learning.

Working at an organization that rapidly learns is the ultimate high. You are respected as you respect others. The space is safe for the best idea, asking for help, and calling bullshit when we start sidetracking. You love working with the people there, even as you strongly disagree with them.  Mistakes are learning events. Differences are raw material for innovation. You use specific techniques and behaviors to rapidly learn as a group. The people there value what you value. You feel in sync and are in fact highly engaged.

Participating inside a true Learning Organization is the ultimate career high.

We are in the late-majority stage with respect to Agile. Most organizations are “playing Agile”, in effect “smoking the dope” of Agile practices to get a quick buzz. These organizations are not focused on organizational learning as the end game. They are out in left field, missing the boat, asleep at the switch. The buzz you can get from Agile is nothing compared to the transcendent bliss of experiencing social membership in a genuine Learning Organization.

Team learning is by no means automatic. We must intend it as a group. Everyone and every organization gets what it wants. To know what an entity wants, examine long-run results. Intentions == Results.

The next chapter with Agile is business agility. A business that is truly Agile is in fact a Learning Organization. The primary tool for getting there is a focus on creating and maintaining a culture that is 100% conducive to extremely high levels of Tribal (group) Learning.

Culture hacking is one way to get there. Culture hacking is the intentional modification of culture, with or without permission…with intent to change the game. Agile is a great example. Agile is a total culture hack.

I explain ALL of this in great detail in my book, The Culture Game. It is a culture hacking tutorial and reference guide– the handbook for game-changers and innovators who live and work in the corporate “reality-distortion” field.

The Culture Game book explains the 16 learning patterns that, if implemented, can almost automatically generate much higher levels of business agility.


Is organizational learning addictive? It might be.

Scrum, Kanban and the rest….they are mere gateway drugs to the real deal: the enterprise-wide mainlining of the habits that lead to the ultimate organizational buzz: The Learning Organization.

Agile is a gateway drug to organizational learning and the blissful state and status that any rational organization must aspire to: the learning organization.

The Learning Organization: Argyris and Schon defined it. Senge popularized it. The Agile movement made it real.

But not at scale.

Agile is a convenient gateway drug to the ultimate buzz: participating in always-on, enterprise-wide organizational learning.

Who wrote this? Learn more here.


In golf, the perfect score is 18.

In communication between 2 people, the ideal is mind-reading.

In communication inside groups, the ideal is a flow of serendipitous interactions, perfect communication flow, with no meetings.

In teams whose aim is to create value, the ideal is continuous flow.

None of these ideals is attainable. That said, is it useful to consider available devices that might help you get close. In golf, there is practice and coaching and play. In 2-person communication, we might try SVO-p, or Nonviolent Communication, to help us get closer to perfect communication. For team-level communication about things that matter, we might try Scrum or Kanban.

What I want you to see is that perfect is something to shoot for, and that NOT getting there is normal. Therefore, to throw dimes (show disrespect) to devices that help is never productive … and actually counter-productive. Saying things like “The ideal is flow rather than kanban” completely misses the point.

Kanban is a very useful device for getting closer and closer to the perfection of continuous flow. To devalue a device because it does not achieve perfection is a perfectly flawed argument. That is like saying that focusing on your golf swing is stupid because people who have done so previously have never achieved the perfect score of 18.

Realize that perfection, by definition, is something you get close to, and by definition, never attain. That is NOT a reason to devalue devices that get you closer and closer and closer still, to perfection. Kanban is useful for paying attention to a continuous flow of value, and the relentless pursuit of perfecting that flow.

Kanban and Scrum are Verbs, Not Nouns

Is it just me? The Kanban community folks appear to encourage and be fond of bashing Scrum. This is unfortunate since the Kanban and the Scrum are so closely related. These are not distant cousins but rather, brothers. They both encourage a generative flow of We.

Positioning Kanban as superior to Scrum and vice-versa is contributing to a sense of meaningless around the word Agile. Agile is beginning to mean “whoever had the biggest ego and yells loudest. Whoever can grab the socio-apparatus of the Agile community (The Scrum Alliance, Agile Alliance, the conferences etc) to steer them. Whoever can advocate their position even louder and more convincingly.”

Exhibit A is the artificial debate between which is better for Agile teams: Kanban or Scrum. Yes, Scrum fails in some organizations and does not  create much improvement in results. Kanban also suffers from these failures, typically in the same organizations.

In general, any failures of either are related to the culture in the implementing organization. In either case, Scrum and/or Kanban, the organizations doing the implementation need pain-killing drugs (commonly called a prescription) and a doctor (commonly called a coach). If they do not need a prescription or a doctor (to help them heal) they’d already be healthy, right?


Language is the Key

In the post The Flow of We I discuss nominalization, the act of changing verbs and adverbs (and other kinds of words) into nouns. Click the link to learn about it. We all do it all the time. It creates space to compare, contrast, disagree, and debate. Naming people, places and things is the primary way we make sense of the world we live in.

Scrum and Kanban are most useful to us in the English language when referred to as verbs, not nouns. We Scrum, and we Kanban. When we Kanban, We pay attention to the flow of work items through our group. We work with upstream and downstream partners to increase the flow of value. When We Kanban we increase the flow of We, by paying attention, as a group, to things that matter, like work items, classes of service, cycle times etc.

Likewise, we Scrum. When we Scrum, we first agree to some basic understandings, about roles and meetings and rules. Then We Scrum. When We Scrum, We open conversational space to discuss the actual details of requirements. We time-box most of these discussions. After We do some work, We reflect formally during a meeting We call “the Retrospective”. We also timebox this meeting.

Scrum is a verb. We Scrum. Kanban is a verb. We Kanban.

The Kanban community already realizes this, well below the level of collective awareness. What, you disagree, and do not think so? Guess again.

Check out this poster and slogan again, it says:

[Yes] … we Kanban. THAT is using the word Kanban as a VERB.





Post Script: 3 hours later, I already got three emails on this from folks out there. Moral of story: language matters.