Build a Visual Work System

Humans are inherently visual creatures.  It cannot be denied that seeing something helps many of us better understand it.  While simple, this idea should not be underestimated.  When Henry Ford wanted to inspire higher productivity in his day shift he painted a large number on the factory floor.  The next morning when the day shift arrived people starting asking what the number meant.  Ford explained it was the number of cars the night shift completed and he was sure the day shift could do better.  Ford’s technique may seem a trivial, after all he could have simply told the day shift how many cars the night shift assembled.  Instead he used a simple, highly visible number to inspire a competition between shifts and ultimately improve productivity.  In his own way, Ford found a method for visualizing the results of each shift’s productivity.

Scrum and Kanban Visualize Work

Information technology (IT) teams have adopted several different methods for improving productivity, most of which involve some form of visualizing the work.  Two of the more interesting are Scrum (the most popular form of Agile) and Kanban (a philosophy based on lean manufacturing principles).  Each visualizes the team’s work in different ways.

Scrum breaks all work into requirements called “user stories”.  The team estimates user stories and groups them into short iterations of work called “sprints”.  The team focuses all their effort on the user stories in the current sprint and attempts to fully complete them before the sprint ends.  At the beginning of each sprint the user stories are placed on a wall or board which only has three columns: Not Started, In Progress, and Complete.  Each user story is further decomposed into tasks and team members move the tasks on the wall as they work them.  There’s much more to Scrum than this but it highlights how the work is visualized.  Anyone can walk up to the wall at any time and see exactly what’s in progress, what’s been completed and what hasn’t been started.  Using a wall to visualize their work, teams quickly get a feel for their odds of completing all the user stories in their sprint.  They can see if they have too many activities in progress, if one person is overloaded, and how many tasks remain to be completed.

Kanban takes a different approach.  It also visualizes work on a board.  The columns however are determined by the process the team is following.  As a unit of work completes one phase of the process, the people performing the next phase pull it into their column as soon as they are ready for more work.  Kanban’s board is more flexible in its layout.  Teams design it to meet their needs.  Like a Scrum board, a Kanban board allows anybody to walk up and immediately see how much work is in progress, what’s been completed, etc.  Scrum limits the amount of work in a sprint while Kanban limits the number of items in progress at any point in time.  Both are much more easily achieved when all of the work is visualized.

Below is a simple Kanban board that visualizes the first few steps of a change request tracking process.  Work items start in the Backlog column and move across the board from left to right.  This is just a representation and not the complete process.  In this example, we can see there are four items in progress:  In Analysis has two items, Solution Design has one, and Ready for Solution Review has one.  There are four items in the Backlog, indicating they haven’t been started.

Guidelines for Visualizing Your Team’s Work

If you’re interested in visualizing your team’s work, here are a few guidelines to help.

1. Understand your process first

Documenting and understanding your existing process will help tremendously in determining how to best visualize it and who to involve.  If you want to visualize all project activities consider following the Scrum standard of three columns: Not Started, In Progress, and Completed.  That’s high level and flexible enough to account for every task in your project plan.  After all, it’s nearly impossible to design a single visual system that will account for all the unique processes in a project.  If you’re working with a specific type of process, consider designing a visual system which more closely matches the steps in your process.  For example, I created a visual system for managing change requests to a software vendor.  The process involves several back and forth exchanges of information and intermediate checkpoints before a change is fully approved.  By visualizing the steps and creating a work item for each enhancement request I track each change through the process.

2. Keep it simple

Keep your visualizations simple.  Use Post-It Notes or something similar if you plan to maintain a physical board or wall.  The point of the system is to keep everyone informed, not to increase overhead.  Keep it as light-weight as possible.

On one project I managed the team had a sticky note for each task in the project plan.  We used a Scrum style board (not started, in progress, and complete) to keep track of the next few weeks worth of work.  Each Friday activities scheduled to be started in the next two weeks were added to the wall.  This helped keep the schedule up to date without having to nag team members for status updates.  It also kept the team aware of all tasks planned to start in the near future.

3. Keep it up to date

Your visual work system will fall apart quickly if you don’t keep it up to date.  The best way to do that is to have the people performing the work update it as they go.  Otherwise, whoever is leading the group will be stuck trying to get updates from team members and the team will quickly lose all respect for the system.

4. Visualize as much of your team’s work as possible

For much of my career I’ve worked with matrixed teams.  It seems the norm now that nobody just works for their supervisor.  Everyone is matrixed to different projects and special assignments.  As a result it can be misleading if you don’t put as much of the team’s work into the visual system as possible.  One of my projects used a simple system to identify non-project work assigned to team members.  Yellow sticky notes represented tasks reflected in the project schedule and blue notes indicated ad hoc and non-project tasks.  By adding non-project tasks to the wall, my team members easily communicated when they were getting pulled in different directions or had competing priorities.

5. Review your system regularly with the team

Scrum calls for daily stand ups at which all team members report on what they finished the previous day, what they are currently working on, and anything impeding their progress.  Kanban also uses stand ups as a method for reviewing the in progress activities and anything blocking their completion.  Whether you use Scrum, Kanban, or some other system, it’s important to gather everyone and conduct a regular review of the work in progress and the issues, impediments, or blockers the team is facing.  This step alone is tremendous advance for most teams.

6. Consider using an electronic board

Once you’ve determined how to visualize your work, consider using an electronic board.  An electronic board has several advantages to a physical board.  It allows geographically distributed teams to share a board just as easily as those in the office.  Electronic boards can be used to attach documents and hyperlinks to work items.  They can generate performance metrics and statistics and automatically send e-mail notifications to participants.  Impact Makers currently uses an electronic board to track our recruiting process from start to finish.  When an interviewer is assigned a candidate, all he or she must do is access the electronic board and the candidate’s resume is attached.  There are numerous web-based visualization systems available.  Some are free while others charge monthly service fees.  If you’re serious about visualizing your work, electronic systems are well worth considering.

Conclusion

Whether you’re building cars, processing paperwork, or designing the next great website, visualizing your work can be a powerful management tool.  Visual systems allow teams to quickly share up to date information on workloads, work in process and issues impeding progress.  By following a few simple rules many teams can benefit from creating visual systems for tracking work.