From the beginning, it became clear that Kanbanize would need more than just cool perks and a nice office to build a dream team equipped to deal with the challenges of a growing startup. A productive and healthy company culture is not something that will happen on its own—you have to build it. Negative culture, though, somehow does evolve on its own, often as a result of disengaged management or a lack of effort toward nurturing a good working environment. Of course, even if you have the best of intentions there will be mistakes and poor decisions. Your job is to not let them drag you down. Act fast and fix what you can.
A quintessential part of the growth and success of Kanbanize was, and still is, our internal culture. Our culture philosophies are value-centered, with attention paid to efficiency and effectiveness. We’re all about promoting continuous improvement by nurturing personal responsibility and mutual support within our team. We’ve learned many hard lessons, and from them we’re able to put together what we believe makes our company a great place to work better, build better, and deliver faster.
1. Live what you preach and don’t compromise your values.
From day one, Kanbanize followed the principles of Lean methodology and Kanban in all of our departments. Every employee actively applies these lean values and the product we develop in all of their work. We don’t just preach and pitch Kanbanize to others, we live it every day.
Based on the combination of the five principles of Lean and the visual nature of a Kanban board with its cards and just-in-time delivery principles, we’ve managed to establish a consistent, reliable, and efficient flow of work across the organization. We admit that we are far from perfect, but we believe perfection is in the process, not the destination.
Seeking value, we only put time and effort into things our customers are willing to pay for. Every task and process at Kanbanize either brings direct value or is a value-supporting process (also referred to as necessary waste). Having implemented Lean practicing in our departments we can allow ourselves to spend more time with our clients collecting direct feedback. This is possible thanks to our Customer Support unit and the way it’s organized. Every single support request is reviewed by our senior executives in addition to our customer support team. We look for inefficiencies in the product and sort them out as needed, be it through discussions or additional training. In addition, customer requests are copied to the product management queue so management can acquaint themselves with the ticket and prioritize them appropriately.
Development processes should be easy on developers and profitable for the whole company. To achieve this, we break down features and tasks until they can’t be made smaller without losing the value our clients seek. Projects don’t die at Kanbanize, because we only work on strategic tasks and customer requests and we never abandon what we’ve already worked on before it is delivered to the customer.
Keeping the balance between customer demands and strategy isn’t easy. The ideas our clients bring are often reasonable and make sense, but implementation can mean taking attention away from strategic features. To make the right decision about the level of priority for each task, we look at the final effect, benefit, and value the feature would bring to the product, our customers, and our company. This means that when a dozen customers really want a certain feature and we believe it will contribute significantly toward the value of the final product we’ll prioritize it ahead of a strategic feature that we also consider valuable. As we grow we envision two dedicated teams, one dealing with customer demands and the other solely with strategic features.
Kanban boards add transparency to our work. Displaying every task as a card on a digital board with explicit policies on how tasks should be handled helps everyone see the real-time progress of the team. Multitasking is strongly discouraged—being busy has nothing in common with being productive. The human brain simply works best when doing one thing at a time. In fact, researchers say you can lose as much as 40 percent of your productivity if you multitask. We manage limits on work-in-progress as we would manage any other resource, allowing a limited number of cards for each column and person.
Instead of trying to estimate work items, we track the team’s actual throughput and success metrics so we have reliable and predictable measures of productivity. With these reality-based metrics, we always have healthy expectations about the speed of delivery for every kind of feature.
We don’t waste time in meetings that drag. The only meetings we encourage are the morning stand up meetings to sync the team’s daily goals, regular KPI review meetings, one-on-one feedback meetings, and meetings of strategic importance.
2. The health of your team is the health of your company.
The principles and methodologies we follow are great, but they won’t stick unless people respect them. At Kanbanize, the glue holding it all together is a set of specific soft skills and principles that we adopted as the core principles of our team.
As presented in the Responsibility Process of Christopher Avery, when facing a failure, people first deny it, then try to lay blame. Some stop there. Others try to then go on and justify their actions only to later accept their guilt and feel the shame. Out of obligation they will then try to resolve the issue. The constructive and productive work happens when a person steps over their pride, takes responsibility for the mistake, and begins the necessary measures to fix the issue and prevent it from happening again. We encourage people to be objective about their work so that they can take and give constructive criticism.
Every new team member is introduced to the principles and values that form our culture before they get to work. We let them know that criticism within the organization is always shared directly and without emotional attachment, and that feedback is a two-way street. That keeps everyone on the same track and prevents things from getting personal.
Our belief in shared leadership helps facilitate this process. We have regular company-wide meetings where everyone gets updated on the current state and is encourage to voice their views, suggest changes, or share praise or professional criticism. At the team level, we have weekly KPI meetings where we review and evaluate our own work and take appropriate actions to make sure we are on the right course. We also have bi-weekly 1-on-1 meetings between team leaders and individual specialists. These allow us to share comments and mutual feedback on everything from personal productivity and success metrics to ideas and suggestions for improvement.
Perfection is a journey, not a destination. It’s continuous improvement with an eye toward looking for better ways to achieve excellence. The idea is not to settle, and to always look for opportunities for future improvement. It’s up to each individual department to meet their own definition of perfection. In RnD, it means code is fully complete and has passed all tests. In the marketing department, success is measured in audience feedback. Across the board, we all do our best to improve each day.
3. Hire extraordinary people.
We learned the hard way that there is no bigger mistake than hiring someone who is extremely good at their job but has no respect for your rules and values. If you want your team to succeed, only hire people who buy into your values, philosophy, and culture.
The people we hire are active thinkers. They’re excited about the purpose of the company. They exhibit potential. Taking a cue from the U.S. Navy Seals, we trust our people to lead at ground level and take initiative. We constantly ask for commentary and suggestions on everything from the product itself to the way our organization operates. This bonds the team even further, ensuring every member knows that their role contributes to the prosperity of the team at large.
To make sure our team doesn’t lose the drive and passion for what we do, we encourage learning and sharing knowledge. Found a book you believe will further your professional expertise? We’ll make sure to order it for our office library. If you read five books from the library in a year and manage to share actionable insights from them in front of the team, you will get a 100% salary bonus at the end of the year. Simple as that. Remember, it’s people, not numbers, that make your business as successful as it can be. Creating a stimulating and rewarding environment is in everyone’s best interests, so don’t shy away from it.
Dimitar Karaivanov is the Co-founder and CEO of Kanbanize, where culture is the name of the game. In fact, it’s the basis behind what they do. Karaivanov knows the all-around importance of a culture that adheres to its values and facilitates their employees to produce great work, and with an eye to the big picture he’s put in dedicated effort to perfecting the methodology.
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