Scrum Master For Kanban Teams

Who is a Scrum Master and what’s the respective role for Kanban?

Am I a Scrum Master, an Agile Coach, or maybe a Flow Master, a Kanban Master, or a Lean Ambassador?

Recently I got a question in the comments below my Kanban Starter Kit video about the role of Scrum Master for Kanban teams:

Sometime earlier, I got another comment from one of my viewers, Sai, who wanted to understand better how the Scrum Master contributes to the team and explain that their job is more than just scheduling meetings.

So today we’ll revisit the Scrum Master accountabilities as per Scrum Guide and talk a bit about the role for Kanban. In the next episode, I’ll explore the Agile Coach role and how to make a kick-ass Agile Coach.

Who is a Scrum Master?

“The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide.”
Scrum Guide, 2020

Easy, isn’t it? Not only are Scrum Masters accountabilities described in, each time less prescriptive, Scrum Guide but also there are countless certifications and courses to help you become one. I am not going to enter the subject of the certification now, as it is a topic for a whole other video/article. Let me just say that my Professional Scrum Master course and exam were very helpful and eye-opening to me. However, (of course, there will be a “however” when we talk about the certifications) I know many great Scrum Masters who haven’t got any certifications, yet have a great mindset which they established with their own hard work.

Scrum Master works on different levels

I want to underline one important thing here, don’t be misguided by some internet chatter about Scrum Master’s focus being limited to the team level only. That they are junior Agile Coaches who don’t work at the organizational level. Scrum Guide states explicitly the following:

“Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.”
Scrum Guide, 2020

This means we are leaders who serve the Scrum Team, the Product Owner, and the organization in several ways described in the guide. Mostly anything connected to Scrum implementations. From training and coaching teams and organizations in Scrum adoption, empiricism to how to approach complex work.

Not a role but an accountability

In 2020, in the revisited Scrum Guide — you can learn more about its 2020 changes in my video 2020 Scrum Guide Update Review — there are no more roles in Scrum. There is a Scrum Team made up of professionals with different accountabilities.

This time Scrum Guide explicitly mentions that Scrum Master is accountable for the teams' effectiveness by enabling the team members to improve their practices within the framework.

Is there a Scrum Master for Kanban?

This is where the Agile Coach name makes the most sense to me. Someone who can facilitate and help different teams irrelevant of the Agile framework they follow. But I’ll leave my dissertation on the Agile Coach role for a dedicated video.

Let me just say that it is pretty common, to have a Scrum Master role helping Kanban teams or teaching Extreme Programming practices. And that is OK. Scrum Guide says:

Scrum exists only in its entirety and functions well as a container for other techniques, methodologies, and practices.

Kanban Guides on the role

In my last video, Kanban Starter Kit, I talk about the Kanban Method as described in Essential Kanban Condensed and I don’t mention the roles at any moment. Well, because in theory there are none:

“Kanban is and remains the “start with what you do now” method, where initially no one receives new roles, responsibilities, or job titbles. So there are no required roles in Kanban and the method does not create new positions in the organization.”
Essential Kanban Condensed, 2016

However, after this sentence there is a “however” and they name two roles. Service Request Manager and a Service Delivery Manager are described as “hats” people wear in carrying other functions. The first “hat” is similar to a Product Owner accountability in Scrum and the second one, Service Delivery Manager, is very similar to the one of a Scrum Master. Its alternative names are Flow Manager, Delivery Manager, or even Flow Master. This person is responsible for the following:

“the flow of work in delivering selected items to customers and for facilitating the Kanban Meeting and Delivery Planning.”
Kanban Guide, 2020

On the other hand, the Kanban Guide, published in 2020 by Daniel S. Vacanti, talks about Kanban system members and mentions no roles. It is not even prescribing the daily meeting as mandatory. Seems very flower power at first sight. But I take it as an intent to be as little prescriptive as possible and the Kanban system members should self-organize to manage their own work.

What can a Flow Master/Kanban Coach do to help?

To my understanding, a coach can help the team to implement the necessary practices to implement Kanban as per Kanban Guide. The teams might not be fully aware of all of them and instead, do an intent on Kanban rather than Kanban. Their daily work is to implement the work items, so they might lose perspective and a holistic view of the system.

An indication of what should be the starting point in Kanban implementation is the usage of the word “must” throughout the Kanban Guide. It appears there three times to be precise. As coaches, we could focus on those first, when we want to start implementing Kanban. The musts are as follows:

  • Must create their Definition of Workflow with the described elements
  • Implement and respect the Work In Progress (WIP) limit

“Kanban system members must explicitly control the number of work items in a workflow from start to finish.”

The third time “must” is mentioned in the endnote highlighting that implementing only parts of Kanban is not Kanban and “a minimum set of practices, measures, and the spirit of optimizing value must be preserved.” Kanban Guide, 2020.

What does it mean in practice?

In practice it means facilitating the meetings up until the team can own them in Scrum, so the Daily meetings or Retrospectives can be done without Scrum Master’s help. And in Kanban defining with the teams which meetings they currently have they want to keep, and which can be canceled.

Coach the team on good practices, not only from Scrum and Kanban but also from Extreme Programming, DevOps, and other complementary ones.

Create workshops and training for the teams to understand why we are following those practices and help them change their habits and continuously improve.

Explain metrics and ways to provide measurable data for the teams to work with.

My experience with Kanban teams

When one of the teams I was working with decided to do Kanban, we started from “zero”. I scheduled a session to explain what Kanban is where they could ask questions. Some of the team members were experienced in Scrum, some were new to the company and also to Agile.

We started working defined the workflow and work-in-progress limit but didn’t have a daily Kanban meeting. We decided to work in two-week feedback loops, to aligh with the rhythm of the rest of the Scrum teams in the company working, and scheduled a retrospective after first two weeks. To my surprise, the team themselves pointed out that they miss a daily meeting where they collaboratively plan their day. We agreed on continuing with a daily meeting, the retrospective and an on-request refinement. After the second retro we also implemented a minimum limit in “ready to develop” column. We decided that when we had less than 3 items in that column, we needed to schedule a refinement meeting to get more stories to “ready”.

And we continued this way until implementing more and more Kanban “requisites”. This is how I helped the teams to implement Kanban, there are for sure many other ways to do so. Maybe you have a story to share in the comment?

There are many ways for us, the Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches or Kanban Flow Masters to help the teams be more effective and efficient at their work. To foster collaboration e.g. by pair-programming and see tangible improvements by applying metrics. I think it is irrelevant what the role is called if we create measurable goals and outcomes.

Agile Coach and Content Creator at Agile State of Mind and RTE in OutSystems