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What Is Upstream Kanban?

In business, value is created when an organization is able to deliver a service or product that satisfies a customer’s needs. System Kanban is the flow of value starting from a customer request to the point of delivering the requested work.

It creates a gradual flow of work or customer requests for the team, rather than a flood of work rushing through at once. 

Systems Kanban is divided into two primary categories:

1. Upstream Kanban – Upstream Kanban is the part of the value stream that starts from the prospective customer’s request up to the point of beginning task production. Upstream Kanban is managed by the delivery team.

2. Downstream Kanban – Downstream Kanban is the part of the value stream that starts from the point of accepting the customer’s request for work to actually delivering the completed work. Downstream Kanban is managed by all stakeholders who typically place work requests to the team.

How did the concept of upstream Kanban originate?

Upstream Kanban was introduced by Patrick Steyaert in his 2018 book ‘Essential Upstream Kanban.’

Patrick defined Upstream Kanban as the specific segment of the value stream that helps create a steady workflow for the company. 

According to the Kanban methodology, Upstream Kanban includes all activities that are done before any work takes place on the customer’s request.

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How does Upstream Kanban work?

Consider how a doctor triages a patient who walks into the emergency room — by classifying the nature and urgency of the medical issue. Then they decide the actual sequence in which the person will move through the hospital’s departments.

Similarly, Upstream Kanban works on a triage methodology. In this step, the teams decide upon:

  • Importance of the request – What priority level is the request and what time or effort will they need to spend on it?

  • Sequence of the request – The order in which work requests will be addressed and completed

Using Upstream Kanban, teams clearly outline their steps in product discovery, demand management, or building a business case.

What are the benefits of Upstream Kanban?

Upstream Kanban was devised from a desire to understand the actual process that takes place even before any team member starts work on a customer need. Here are the key advantages of focusing on Upstream Kanban:

  • Clarifies customer demands in terms of different options that are available even before any level of delivery commitment occurs
  • Boosts internal option discovery process and allows cross-functional teams to collaborate more effectively
  • Strengthens customer engagement and interaction with the project team helping bring a steady flow of work
  • By prioritizing critical action items and classifying the sequence of work tasks, teams are able to minimize any potential work disruptions as everything is laid out clearly