Kanban Flight Levels

From the Modern PM Blog
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Categories: Kanban, Modern PM, Philosophy


Looking over the rim of our project tea cup.

Lately, one is hearing more and more often about Flight Levels. Especially in combination with Kanban. But what is meant by that? And more importantly, how can I use these flight levels for myself? And where do they come from? The latter question is the easiest to answer, so I start with that. There is a gentleman by the name of Klaus Leopold. He is a crazy good (Lean Kanban-)coach. (And no, I do not get any money from him for that statement, but honor to whom credit is due.) And he wrote a book called "Kanban in Practice". And there he formulated the idea of Flight Levels.

And what are these Flight Levels now?

The Flight Levels are the levels on which an organization is working and thinking. And yes, there are thousands and thousands of them. But for the sake of simplicity we are distinguishing three:

  • Flight Level 1
    The daily business, as the saying goes.
  • Flight Level 2
    Spoiler Alert: The interface between daily business and strategy.
  • Flight Level 3
    The strategy level. Where the visions arise.

And I can hear you, project managers, all shouting, "We've had that for a long time! Project, Program, Portfolio." And at first, I felt the same way. But the Flight Levels are about more than just change. (And yet I think there are a lot of parallels between project-program-portfolio and the three Flight Levels, no question.)

For me, the Flight Levels are meant differently, wider in some parts. Or more precisely in others. I know that contradicts itself. So let us take a closer look at the three.

Just under the clouds - Portfolio Management

Of course, the top Flight Level can also be called portfolio management. But there is also a lot of strategy inside, which I do not necessarily have with Portfolio Management. (OKR - Objectives and Key Results would be the right and hip buzzword here, but I bite it back.)

Klaus Leopold is using the term Strategic Portfolio Management and to me that is actually a pretty good description of what is happening at this level. Here we can find the levels on which strategies are developed and broken down into initiatives (the next upcoming buzzword). So management work, then. In which direction are we evolving? Where are our priorities right now? In which areas do I put my resources?

By the way, all these questions, topics, initiatives are in good hands when we are using a Kanban board. Talking about "visualization of my work". Sure, that seems funny at first glance. Writing the big mammoths on task sheets and move them across a whiteboard. But especially here visualization is actually an incredibly powerful tool.

About busy bees

The first ("lowest") Flight Level can certainly be seen parallel to the term "project". And I deliberately put the word "lowest" in quotation marks, because at this level the actual implementation takes place. But I can not think of a more appropriate word. After all, we are talking about altitudes here.

So projects, but also in a broader context. The headline here, we can not forget that, is Kanban. More run than change, if you like.
(And please forgive the many comments in brackets. Today is probably a parenthesis day.)

Klaus Leopold has a wonderful analogy that I would not want to withhold from you. If every team is responsible for one line of the keyboard and I want them to write a letter, there is nothing in it for me, if a team can press the "S" key really quickly. I need an efficient and effective interaction of the teams. Of course. Unfortunately, this is working far too rarely.

The Golden Mean

The strategy and the daily business (Flight Levels one and three) are pretty well received by most of the organizations I know. We have that under control. Only in between, something is missing pretty often. The level that translates the strategies into tasks. The big, abstract chunks divided into small, concrete work instructions. ("The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!", to quote Metropolis). Small companies often find this easier to achieve because a single role can often fill this level. However, this also greatly increases the risk. And at least beyond a certain size of the organization, I have to institutionalize this level.

We know that quite well from project management. There we have our PMO and the program managers who slip into the clothes of this mediator between brain and hands. And that works quite well in most cases. But outside the project world, we can often find a void here. Since the unifying bracket is missing. The second Flight Level precisely. The coordination and interaction between the teams and above all the coordination of the teams to ensure that the right things are being worked on at the right time. And what is often overlooked here: that also means to make sure that new initiatives are not constantly sloshing from top to bottom, but that the first Flight Level can finish work. Here we are talking about Customer Value. And that should be our noble goal.

How can I use this for myself?

In my eyes, Flight Levels are a good analogy, alone because of their name. Altitudes. This pretty well reflects how and where individual organizational units are currently moving. And they come from Kanban county, but for me, the basic idea of the Flight Levels is universally applicable. Or, like Kanban, I can combine them well with other philosophies, methodologies, ideas, approaches. Neither, as PMBOK as big picture and Scrum as a daily business tool exclude themselves (on the contrary, that works really well!), nor do Flight Levels and - again - Scrum. Here we are facing the same situation as everywhere else: some things you just have to try.

Posted on: June 09, 2019 10:51 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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I have to rate this highly simply for the Metropolis reference.
I'll bet the Maschinenmensch could press "S" very quickly.

Very interesting article, thanks for sharing

Rami, thanks a lot!

Wade, thanks! I like Metropolis a lot. When hearing about the Flight Levels for the first time, I had to think of that mediator-quote. Thea von Harbou was a visionaire.
And I hope you liked the rest of my post too :)

Abolfazl, thanks a lot.

Eduin, thanks a lot!

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