Interview with Masa K Maeda

Masa K Maeda is one of the foremost globally renowned experts on Agile, Kanban and Lean thinking. He Possesses an international experience of over 26 years providing consulting, coaching and training in both prestigious Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in over four continents. A celebrated figure in the Agile community, he’s also the creator of the Serious LeAP® model, made to create boost economic growth at organisations.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to converse with him and discuss some of the ideas regarding Kanban, Lean Adoption and his own successful career. Please Read:

Q1.  As an introduction, give a brief summation on why you’ve committed yourself to working/ researching in the Agile Field? Why specifically, do you see it as a personal calling?

Masa: Back in 1997 I had the fortune of working with Brian Marick at a startup right after my years doing R&D at Apple. He made me realize that my true calling was Quality (not testing), which had been a mindset I acquired during my graduate years in Japan. The Agile Manifesto totally clicked and given its high degree of compatibility with what I already had in me, so getting deep into the marrow of agile came rather naturally.

Q2. You wrote a bit about ‘Personal Kanban’. Give a brief on how regular/entry-level executives, can get started to adopt it in their daily lives?

Masa: Personal Kanban (PK) is simple yet amazingly powerful and useful to executives at all levels. The dynamics of how tasks come to us at work and in our personal lives has some similarities so PK is quite useful. Some tasks come onto our plates out of our control. For example, a person getting an urgent call from a customer or getting a call from our child’s teacher asking us to come pick her up because she got toothache. The amount of tasks can get out of control at the blink of an eye, absorbing our time to the point that very little gets done no matter how hard and long we work. Counting with an easy and fun way to organize oneself and minimize multitasking gives executives their work and personal life back.

To get started all you have to do is enumerate your tasks and visualize them on a simple “To Do | Doing (n) | Done” board populated with stickies–one per task. The board can be either physical or electronic. The “(n)” indicates the maximum number of tasks you’ll do at a time. The recommended number is 2, maybe 3. More than that would start bringing you back to the stressed modus operandi from which you are trying to get out. Try to focus on one and only one task at a time. The extra capacity is for those out-of-control tasks that fall on your plate. All extra work is prioritized on the To Do part of your board for you to take it as you get done what you have at hand. It may feel uncomfortable at first and you may be under the impression that things won’t get done, but you’ll be surprised by how much better your work will flow and by how much better you’ll feel.

Q3.  Industries/ Corporations have, and will continue to evolve rapidly over time. How do Kanban experts adjust to the change, in order to keep the nature of their study/field of work still relevant?

Masa: The most relevant way to stay up to day and to adjust to change is by keeping a Systems level view and understanding of the industries with which we interact, by exchanging experiences, by keeping an open mind to research and adopt new knowledge, and by innovating.

Q4.. You have worked internationally quite extensively. Mention some of the biggest successes of Kanban you’ve witnessed. What are the areas of application of Kanban, that some of the top executives want to be proficient at?

Masa:  I have seen, not witnessed, some presentations on Kanban adoptions so I can speak for me and my team only We have done work in 15 countries at companies of all sizes from diverse industries. At Claro, one of the four largest telecoms in the planet, we reduced the number of blocked projects by 78% in less than three months. At Banco de Chile, the number one bank in all of Latin America, we have lowered the cycle time by 62% in the last four months and expect it to lower further. We are also transforming a core banking company where we currently are at 91% requirement-to-approval time reduction and 56% cycle time reduction. We’ve also brough Kanban at European defense and cybersecurity organizations (Isdefe and Incibe), and at Repsol, one of the largest energy companies in the planet but I’m not at liberty to disclose details.

There are executives who, as result of limited systems-level information on agile, get the impression that Kanban is mostly for technology operations. That drives executives to think that what they have to do is buy into it and sponsor it, but not necessarily to consider it applicable at the C and D levels. Kanban is applicable at all levels of the organization and make excellent quantitative management possible, meaning, that executive decisions become more fact-based and less gut-based therefore increasing the probability of a good decision.

Kanban is also agnostic. I have applied it beyond Software Dev and IT to also HHRR, admin, finance, marketing, sales and auditing, from strategic to operational level. My approach to agile adoption has always been based on system thinking. By that I mean top-down-bottom-up-transversal–all almost simultaneously–where the emphasis is on mindset and human aspect over methodologies and tools. For example, I start with systems thinking mindset at C-Level, followed by Lean-agile mindset at the other levels to then gradually introduce high-collaboration frameworks and methodologies at all levels together with organizational behavior and behavioral economics. All tools and methodology adoption is transmitted making reference to their corresponding mindset to bring understanding instead of just knowledge.

Q5. You spoke in length about Lean Value Adoption. Elucidate why exactly it’s important for start-ups/ young companies should adopt Lean Methods, and some ways in which they can go about it.

Masa: New and small companies confront human-material-financial resources limitation challenges so high degree of efficiency and efficacy is vital. Lean and Kanban help them increase their throughput without sacrificing quality and quantitative management is useful for them too. Getting started is quite easy but it is extremely important not to focus on just jumping straight onto the mechanics of Kanban but to given themselves the time and effort to absorb the fundamentals (Lean Thinking and the Kanban Practices/Principles/Orientation), otherwise the benefit will be marginal.

Q7.. Of all the places you’ve visited for lectures/ workshops, which one has been the most memorable for you personally? Mention some key highlights (if possible, your own learnings, if any)

Masa: The Kanban Leadership Retreats. Its small size, closer interaction and in-depth discussions where freedom of agenda and topics to evolve Kanban are second to none. It is there where some of what’s new is either generated or evolves to then be broadcasted at conferences. Some highlights include an increased emphasis on the human side of Kanban and improved quantification.

Q8. Mention some of the more challenging moments of your career. Was there ever an instance where Lean and Agile principles helped you get through a professional challenge?

Masa: There were instances since I started Valueinnova, over nine years ago, when getting contracts was difficult because potential customers wanted us to sacrifice quality in order to “make the deadline” or insisted on training only as the way to become Agile. My commitment to successful delivery of value to my customers sometimes resulted on not getting contracts because I didn’t let myself fall in the trap of making money and give the customer what they were wrongfully asking for. Although the business suffered at times, my reputation and that of my company has remained high and business has improved as result of it.

Q9. Finally, leave some words of encouragement for others who are interested in pursuing work research in Lean and Agile. How should they ideally proceed, and what traps they should avoid.

Masa: I always say “value the mindset and the human aspect over the methodologies and tools”. I’ve seen a shocking increase on Agile methodology adoptions were, for example, the Agile manifesto and caring for people is mentioned but never truly understood–let alone applied. My advice is to get very deep into systems thinking, into absorbing the Lean-Agile mindset to them apply it together with the methodologies and beyond. Always with a value, quality and economic perspective.




Masa K Maeda is a globally recognized expert on Lean-Agile transformation. He’s consulted, and has helped bring about change in both Fortune 500 companies, as well as emerging startups in over dozen countries. He’s coached executives, teams, managers and customers on economic value oriented improvement through systems-lean-agile thinking and methodologies. He’s also the created of the Serious LeAP® lean-agile model , founder of Valueinnova consulting,one of the founders of Lean Kanban University and an active Keynote speaker across the globe.


Mob Programming | Glossary



Mob Programming is the software development approach in which the whole team works on the same computer, at the same time, in the same space and on the same thing. It is an extension of the concept of ‘pair programming’. It can be used in coding, defining stories, working with customers, designing, testing and deploying software. It is usually carried out and accomplished in workshops.


Further Reading

  • For more on Information Radiators, read here.