The most powerful tool in the Lean arsenal is visibility. The more that the elements of work are visible, and the greater degree of visibility, the more opportunities the team and your organization will have to improve. If you can see it, then you can fix it.
Physical or Electronic?
Should you seek a physical or an electronic visual management system?IT people usually start by seeking a technological solution. Visual management then means using an electronic tool, or sometimes a spreadsheet, that gives a glimpse of the work through a small screen. Consideration of the work means scrolling up and down, back and forth, clicking, expanding and collapsing.
There are often very good reasons for this. Perhaps the team is geographically distributed. People often work from home. Corporate governance mandates use of a tool. etc.
So why would you want a physical system?
Advantages of a Physical System
- Makes tangible the “extent” (“distance”) of the work from beginning to end ("walking the board" literally means walking the board)
- Articulates the types and categories of work - and challenges your understanding of them
- It is trivial to update, expand, change, rework or add to
- Articulates priorities of work - e.g., physically higher/lower, colors
- You can use anything to augment your physical display. Tape, stickies, stickers, yarn, . . . anything from the craft store
- Externalizes interactions about the work
- Externalizes assumptions about the work
- You can include diagrams, charts, graphs, checklists, etc and place them anywhere
- Exposes any “off the books” work
- Exposes any "assumed" work
- Facilitates shared understanding of the work and how it creates value
- Facilitates congruence on what the work is
- Anyone can annotate anything
- Articulates current best practices - and makes them changeable
- Provides bandwidth for communication about the work
- Provides a “process focus”
- Progress is tangible - you touch and move items on the display
- Provides a forensic Value/Waste evaluation tool
- Externalizes any “blame” – the process is “at fault”
- Supports data collection for fact-based estimates
- Makes work-in-progress visible
- Makes delays visible - "at a glance" what has changed from yesterday? What has not?
- Easy identification of what is “almost done” - near the end
- Identifies process steps where slowdowns occur
- Fosters a sense of urgency as “winning” becomes obvious
- Provides visibility to the work for management and stakeholders - they can "go and see"
- Shows the impact of “injects” (what happens when the firetruck enters traffic?)
- Makes policies visible (e.g., "emergency", “done”, “escalation”, etc)
- Makes work state transition criteria (“stepwise definition of done”) visible
- Eliminates the need for "status reports"
But the most important is its use as a vehicle for change and improvement, via experimentation.
The biggest difference between a physical display and an electronic one is the sense of “finality” that comes from the electronic. The electronic "solves" the problem of what your work is. You are "done" with thinking about your work, how it drives value, and what might be something better.
Remember with Lean to never assume you've "solved" the problem. You've just implemented a counter-measure.
With an electronic display it is hard (impossible) to make wholesale changes or even incremental additions. The tool won't allow it. Current artifacts in the tool won't fit or transition to the new model. You’ll need to retrain everyone. You need “admin” privileges. Or the dreaded “that violates corporate governance guidelines”.
But the worst is the loss of the sense of “play” you have with the physical board. An electronic system is solemn. It must be obeyed and can not be challenged.
If you are currently using an electronic system
- When is the last time you completely reworked your visual management system? Split out different types or categories? Changed the sequence of activities? Split up activities?
- When was the last time you identified a best practice? Challenged a best practice?
- Is your visual management system only "kanban"? Is your kanban "To do", "Doing", "Done"? (I.e., is it a grocery list?)
- Does your system give the team a way to think about the work while the work is underway?
- Does it give a way to think about the effectiveness of the work in relation to the value you are trying to achieve?
- Does it provide a way to review in detail the work done?
Thinking about the work is hardHow is the Value created? How does the team work together? What happens first? At the end? What must happen? Cannot happen? Until? While? Before? Unless?
Are you getting what you actually expected? Is each cognitive step worth it? Is there a better way?
Not only are these questions difficult, but too many teams (and managers) feel answering them takes time away from actually doing the work.
Having a physical display lowers the effort needed to change the visual management system. Given how easy it is to change, experimentation becomes the norm.
This in turn makes it easier to think about the work, and change (experiment on) the work.
If at all possible, even for geographically distributed teams, gather on a regular basis and thrash out the work in a physical, tangible way. Challenge a distributed team to identify, invent and use multiple channels of communication to leverage the benefits of a visual management system - physical if possible.