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Visualizing Work: If you can’t see it, you can’t manage it

Have you ever been to this stand-up meeting?

You might have observed a pattern: people take turns to diligently inform each other about their activities during the previous day, and they close with a “no blockers” remark. From the sound of it, it seems that there’s rarely an impediment, and work is moving along.

That is not a bad place to be. From the perspective of this team’s Customers one of the things that really matter is flow of value, from the point where a commitment was made to them to the point where the commitment is fulfilled and their needs are met. What’s odd, however, is that in the same environment the most common source of dissatisfaction Customers express is not getting value fast and frequently enough, in a clear disconnect with the “no blockers” statement.

I don’t believe these teams are lying or being purposely misleading. On the contrary. They are most likely having that standup in front of a board that looks similar to this, and shows that they are indeed very busy and moving along.

Blockers are for work, not people

It may help to realize that people are rarely truly blocked: if we can’t work on something, there’s usually plenty of other work we can do, either by switching to another task, or starting a new one. When we do that, of course, work now waits.

Work gets blocked. Actually, it can stop flowing very easily because of external dependencies, the way we’ve decided to process it, or many other reasons. But often times that is difficult to see, given the “invisible” nature of intellectual, knowledge work.

And therein lies the challenge: work is not flowing, but he board the team is using during their stand-ups is not making that very visible. Because we have the tendency to focus on what we can see (people), it becomes easier to focus on staying busy rather than managing the flow of work. A board with three columns and a bunch of stickies is simply not enough.

This problem, of course, is not specific of daily standup meetings. It will manifest itself in any situation when we’re trying to reason about our work, and attempting to make decisions to manage it so that it reaches Customers as soon as possible.

We can overcome this challenge if we leverage our visualization mechanisms to help us see the invisible. In this series of articles, I will explore different ways in which we can do that, and that way generate a context in which flow of work can me more effectively managed by the team that works on it.

Before moving forward, however, I’d like to highlight some general principles:

Start from where you are and evolve from there

What follows here shouldn’t be interpreted as a collection of “recipes” to be implemented all at once. On the contrary, they are meant to support an evolutionary approach to change, where one starts by improving one particular aspect, and that informs the decision of what action to take next.

The “start from where you are” part is also very important: the overall recommendation is to start by visualizing things as they are now, not how we’d like them to be. Visualize, rather than “whishualize” (thanks Derek Wade for the term.)

You may not like what you see, but acknowledging your current reality is the first step to understand it and then making an informed, pragmatic decision about what to change.

Stand back, observe, ask questions

The reason we visualize work is so that we can stand back, take a good look at it, make observations, come to some insights, and then make decisions.

Think about which recurring questions you need answers for (what kinds of things are we working on? who’s working on what? where is work stuck right now? etc.) and design your board to provide those answers. But there will also be ad-hoc questions. Your board can help with those as well, or be adapted to help with providing answers or leads to them.

Listen to your board

One of the most common objections I hear from people when I suggest visualizing their work with stickies on the wall is: “we’ll need lots of stickies, we’ll cover the whole wall!” That’s essentially your board whispering “you have lots of work in progress” or “you have made a lot of commitments that are waiting to be delivered.

Your board will be telling you things. Sometimes, uncomfortable things. Listen to your board (and teach your team to listen to it), and then take some action.


In the following weeks, I will be adding follow-up articles here covering the various aspects of work that can be visualized:

This article series is based on a presentation I delivered at the Toronto Agile Conference 2018. The slides from that talk can be found here.

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