Visual management

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In Visual Management for Agile Teams, I discussed the importance of usability and good design when building our taskboards. Today I want to focus on how we write our tasks, and try to make a case for increased readability.


Readability is defined as “how easy it is to read something”. There are two meanings, as in “a readable handwriting” and “a readable book”. In this case we will focus on the first definition as it applies to answering the following question: how easy is it to read the tasks on our taskboard?


Readability will always be somewhat subjective: what could be perfectly readable for me, could be unintelligible for you. But let’s try to agree on a general readability acceptance criteria. I propose the following:

Tasks should be easily readable and understandable by a person with normal sight from a distance of around two meters.

Why two meters? Because it is a reasonable (maximum) distance from the board you can expect people to be standing at during the daily standup meeting, and when passing by.

In order to achieve this, we have to comply with two simple guidelines:

1) Small amount of text: tasks should have no more than 10 words, as a rule of thumb.

2) If handwritten, text should be written in big, bold, capital letters.

Avoid documenting

Tasks should have no more than 10 words because fitting more text into a 3×3 inch (76×76 mm) standard Post-It forces you to write too small, and we want to avoid that. But there is also another reason. You shouldn’t need to write a lot of text if you understood the nature of tasks and how to use them in your process. Tasks are meant to be pointers to the work that has to be done. Reminders. Not a full analysis or description of what has to be done. The goal of a task is to represent a unit of work. The details of the work should be in the person’s head, having been discovered and defined by having conversations with the other team members. We should avoid documenting tasks on the post-its as much as possible. We should also avoid using sticky notes as “documentation hand-offs” between team members.

The reason for using bold letters is to increase readability of the text. Bold is required because of the distance we want to read from, and the size of the font we want to write in. Writing 10 words on a standard post-it in ballpoint pen in a text size that fills the post-it would result in a font that is too lightweight and disproportioned. Most likely what will happen is that people will write the 10 words in a very small font, thus rendering it illegible from the required distance.

The reason for writing in all capital letters is that lots of people have bad handwriting, or write in cursive when not writing capital letters. This makes a task difficult to read even if it complies with the 10-word rule and is written in big bold letters. We are not trying to learn to decipher your doctor’s handwriting here, thank you. See above example in orange.

Readability creates transparency and trust

Readability of tasks is cornerstone to generating and sustaining the feeling of transparency and trust that taskboards have the potential to transmit. To achieve this, the taskboard has to invite to be read. Avoid the following readability anti-patterns:

  • Difficult to read handwriting
  • Small text
  • Text written in ballpoint pen or pencil
  • Text written with colored markers.
  • Text written with whiteboard marker or dried up markers.

Read it from your desk

If tasks are readable from two meters without effort, they might also be somewhat readable from a distance of up to 5 or 6 meters. If the taskboard is in the work area, chances are most desks will be located within this radius. This means that team members might be able to read the taskboard from their desk, something desirable. As an example, in the picture below, most desks are within reading distance of their taskboard.


The thick black marker

A black permanent marker with a rounded tip is the only writing tool you will need. If you take care of it well (you close the lid carefully and don’t press too hard on the tip when you write) it will far outlive your project. They are also very cheap and it is not unreasonable to give one to each team member.

There are several brands in the market. I have tested many of them and my top recommendation is the Edding 3000 which I can get for around €1 a piece here in Belgium.


Top contenders and good substitutes are the Sharpie classic and the Artline 70N.


What you are looking for in a quality permanent marker is:

  • rich, solid black ink
  • ink dries fast, doesn’t smear
  • doesn’t bleed on Post-it paper
  • lasts long
  • cap fits on the back (so you don’t lose it), and is easy to open and close

As an extra, the Edding 3000 and some other brands come in a mini-marker version which is ideal for the purse of the lady Product Owner or the pocket of the gentleman Scrum Master. :)

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Great video!

Any similarity between this guy and my desk is purely… frightening. I hope these things don’t start moving on their own!

Xavier's desk

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Here are some examples of Kanban boards I built for a friend. I was not coaching these teams, so I did not have any say on the process. My job was simply to build a board that would reflect their current process, using my Visual Management guidelines.

These boards are for a corporate unit that acts as a sort of “enterprise proxy product owner”. They receive business demands from multiple business units, they analyze and classify them, and make a proposal to the customer. They also make recommendations such as build or buy. If the proposal is approved, they send it to development and follow it up into production.

For my first attempt, I was told that there was a special state that had to be highlighted: the “GO/NO GO” state, where a proposal is waiting to be either approved or rejected. So I built this board with a red swimlane to hold kanban cards in that state:

Kanban board with go/no go

I was very happy with this solution from the visual point of view. Unfortunately they realized that it did not reflect their process accurately so I was asked to tear it down and start over again.

For the next iteration, They identified four states where something vaguely resembling single-piece-flow should theoretically occur. The four states are “quotation” (yellow) , “study” (blue), “contract” (green) and “execute” (red). The colors are the background color I chose as a title for the swimlane to visually distinguish it. For each state, there are three sub-states that are not always the same. This is what a finished board looked like:


Note that I used different colored tape to indicate internal columns from state-boundary columns. In the first board I had used gray tape, which I like more than the blue tape in this picture because it connotes better the idea of sub-columns.

These boards were accepted and populated with kanban cards. Each card is a Super Sticky Post-It, representing a customer demand as it flows from being submitted by the business to being deployed into production. Note how immediately upon populating the board the bottlenecks became visible. This board represent the initial state this team was in when they decided to visualize their workflow.


They also put some sections out of the swimlanes for special things. For example jobs that get cancelled or sent back to the business. Those are the boxes you see on the side.

Here is a closeup of the main part of the board.


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A good way to know if your team is using their taskboard to really manage their work is to look at their daily standup meeting.

Does it look like this:


or like this?


A team that is using visual management to manage their work will always do their daily standup against the board. During the daily standup you update your team members on your work. Both work finished the day before and work still in progress should be clearly indicated on the board. It only makes sense to go over the board as you talk. This is both easier for you and easier for team members. It also helps to visually place what you are talking about in context.


If you are using the DONE tag, nametags, status tags and the three columns; then there is a very simple guideline to make sure you don’t forget to talk about anything important every day: do the daily standup against the board, and make sure all tasks in the middle column (“in progress”) are talked about.

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Putting team member pictures on the team taskboard is another good idea. This is particularly useful for large organizations that have many teams and lots of people.


Benefits of team pictures

  • Helps create team identity (together with a team name) “This is who we are. We are the Blue Team and these are our members.”
  • Helps you match faces to names when looking at the board, especially if you use nametags.
  • Eliminates all uncertainty regarding who is in what team. People get one picture and can only belong to one team.
  • Helps find people in large offices. “You have to talk to Susan from the green team. You can see her picture on their board”.
  • Changing teams, or going on loan to another team for a Sprint, is as easy as moving your picture and nametags from one board to another.
  • We turn around a picture to indicate that the person is not present today. This helps you not lose time looking for people that aren’t there.
  • We also put cell phone numbers of team members on the back of their picture. No more going crazy trying to find the number of Johnny!

We also use team pictures to do literal “team building” exercises.  Every now and then you might want to reshuffle and reorganize the teams. You can take all pictures into a meeting room with a clean whiteboard and brainstorm how new teams would look like. This is a highly visual way of “seeing” and “building” a large team that has to be divided in sub-teams.

Visual Team Building exercise

In the pictures below you can see such an exercise with a team of 35 people.  We did this when going from component teams to feature teams. In this case, people were pre-divided into groups  (based on specialization, domain knowledge, etc). People from each group were not supposed to end up in the same team (this was a way of ensuring cross-functionality and cross-pollination). Asides from that restriction, people were free to self-organize and choose the team they wanted to be in. Based on the number of people, we wanted to create 4 sub-teams. I set up the board like this:


The result after the exercise was finished:


Using pictures allows you to “see” how the teams will look like. Moving the pictures around is very easy and allows you to visualize different team configurations. The visual effect is very strong here.

How I make the team pictures

I go through the effort of making high quality team pictures because they look good and last forever.

mugshotsI take a decent picture of the person, crop it to a 750×750 pixel square, and insert their picture into a Photoshop template I made (available on request) with the logo of the company and the name of the person. Then I print it in glossy photo paper and plastify it (you can fit 12 pictures per A4 sheet). I cut the pictures out and finally I stick a piece of thin magnet to the back.  The result is really good and sturdy, hard to explain in writing but the pictures look great, are solid and stick well to whiteboards. Many people ask for them as a souvenir when they leave the team!

Some people joke that they look like mugshots, and they’re right :). But they don’t have to, you can take a nice picture with a blurry background too, if you have the required photographic skills and equipment (a reflex camera and a zoom or fast lens). There’s an example of my friend Katie with a blurry office background in the “Elements of Taskboard Design” page.

Footnotes & Credits

I got this idea from the table tennis world. Specifically, from TTC Rooigem in Gent (where I live). First I did it for my ping pong club and then when I saw the result I thought “Hey, this would look great on my Scrumboards!”. Sure enough, it was an immediate hit… once people got past the embarassment of having their picture taken!

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“Unplanned items and legacy issues” is the top row on my scrumboards. Instead of a story, it is a placeholder for:

  • Unplanned work: stuff that we suddenly have to do and we can’t plan (meaning we cannot put into the backlog as a story). A typical example is reinstalling a PC after a hard drive crash. You might spend all day at this, and you are obviously not going to wait until the next sprint to fix your PC.
  • Legacy issues: this is any bug or issue that belongs to stories already delivered and accepted, and should be fixed.

Why do I put this on top? For unplanned items it’s rather obvious: this is for things you are doing anyways, and are not part of any story. Most teams simply don’t visualize this type of work, but I like all work to be visible, even if it doesn’t add value. Otherwise the day is gone and “nothing” was done. This way at least everybody knows what you are doing.

Regarding legacy issues, a general best practice is to fix bugs before writing new code, and implement all feedback from the Sprint Demo before starting with new stories. If you follow those guidelines, legacy issues should have priority over new work.  (If for any reason it doesn’t, then put it either in the backlog or in the parking lot).

In both cases, we are assuming the work is relatively small. That means tasks, not stories. At most a couple of days of work.  For example, during the Sprint demo, the customer might make a small observation that takes one or two hours to fix. A small change request if you want.  How are you going to manage this work? Are you going to create a new story for this? Too much overhead… just put up a task (a post-it) in Legacy Issues, get it done with and forget about it. But be careful with this and always use common sense. If it is story-size work, there is really no excuse not to plan it, it is the PO’s responsibility to tell the customer it will go in the backlog and the best he can ask for is top priority for the next sprint.


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Visual management is not just about having visual elements, how you use them is equally important. A bad process can render a good idea useless. And some trivial ideas, with a good process behind them, can produce interesting results.

The DONE status tag is a process related idea. It is a creative way to visualize flow, give teams a moment to celebrate their achievements, and to ensure team alignment and communication; all on a daily basis.

The DONE tag

The concept is simple. During the day, team members work on tasks that are in the “In progress” column of the task board. When they finish a task, instead of immediately moving it to the “Finished” column, they slap a DONE tag on it. And there it stays for the rest of the day, broadcasting to the world that the team has finished some work. This is the flow part: at a glance, at the end of the day you can “see flow” by scanning the boards for DONE tags. The more blue, the more flow. Managers and Product Owners like this.

The celebration part comes during the daily standup. Here, the team gets to move all their DONE tags to the Finished column, creating a small daily moment of pride. Naturally it should be the person who finished the task who talks about it and moves it.

What about alignment and communication? By moving all DONE tasks at the daily standup, you basically ensure that everybody in the team is aware of what is getting finished and by whom. This is actually how the idea came up. Team members were moving tasks to Finished during the day, and then at the daily standup they would forget to talk about stuff. With lots of tasks in the Finished column, it was getting difficult to remember which ones were new from the day before. And if you have One Day Tasks, believe me, this is going to happen, especially with the most prolific developers who get a lot of stuff done. The idea was to come up with a foolproof process that would guarantee people would talk about everything they finished the day before without requiring a special effort on their part. This worked, and people liked it.

So the general guideline for using the DONE tag is:

  • You should only move tasks to the Finished column during the daily standup.
  • You should only move tasks that have the DONE tag on them and you did yourself.
  • Once you move them to the Finished column, remove the DONE tag.

Another curious thing I discovered is that sometimes team members forget to talk about something they finished the day before, even if it is in the “In progress” column and has a DONE tag on it. But in this case it is easy to detect: if after the daily standup there are still DONE tags remaining, either they forgot to talk about it, or it was done by a team member that is absent that day (in that case, unless he went on holidays, teams normally wait for him to come back so as to not steal his achievement).

Can you quickly spot the finished tasks?

Can you quickly spot the DONE tasks?

Why blue tags?

The truth: no special reason. I just randomly chose a nice looking color. But then I found out that blue represents “good” in japanese, so -being these tags a Lean idea- this actually gave it some meaning. (For the curious: I learned this through a lengthy debate with Kohsuke Kawaguchi, the author of the Hudson CI engine. Hudson displays a blue screen instead of a green screen when the build is OK.) Blue also has very good contrast with yellow, making it easy to visualize finished tasks from afar, as you can see in the above picture. But there is no special reason for blue, and I have seen that some teams prefer using green for DONE.

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Last Thursday I tried out for the first time my session proposal for Agile 2009, thanks to my friends at iLean who invited me to give their free monthly iLearn session in Kontich (near Antwerp). In this workshop participants are divided into teams and challenged to come up with the “ultimate taskboard” for the newly appointed CEO of their company. After a first iteration where basic boards are built, the work is criticized by the CEO and then it’s back to the drawing board as more requirements are added.

Asides from the basic “who’s doing what”, teams are expected to come up with creative, visual ways of showing daily project issues such as “a team member’s hard drive crashed and he spent all day reinstalling his PC” or “a team member is sick”.

Thanks to all the people who participated! Workshop pictures follow.

Red team building their board

Red team building their board

Green team building their board

Green team building their board

Blue team presenting their board

Blue team presenting their board

The jury is out on this one...

The jury is out on this one…

Finished Red team board

Final Red team board

Final Green team board

Final Green team board

Final Blue team board

Final Blue team board (click for large version)

The purpose of nametags is to be able to quickly and easily see who’s working on what. I love nametags. I haven’t been able to come up with a simpler, more practical and more flexible way of achieving this level of transparency and visualization.


I like nametags because:

  • Nametags are extremely self-explanatory.
  • Nametags are very readable if written nicely.
  • Nametags are small and unintrusive, but highly visible at the same time.
  • Nametags can be of different colors which adds some clarity without creating visual pollution.
  • Nametags are cheap and can be made in 10 seconds. And they last practically forever.
  • Nametags are flexible. Placing one is a snap. You can easily remove them. You can put one on top of another. You can bunch them together. They can overlap, hang out, or on the side of task and status Post-it’s.

Usability is very important when designing your visual elements and processes. It is important to distinguish between nice and usable. Both are good, but usable is more important. Let’s examine a couple of other ideas for achieving the same goal, and see how they fare against nametags.

Idea 1: Scribble the name or initial of whoever is working on the task, on the task itself.

This is the “default” method that many teams use. I don’t like this idea at all. It’s neither nice nor usable. It looks bad, is not very readable, and in practice it is never maintained. What happens if you get blocked? Do you cross your name out? And what if another person starts working on the task, with or without you? Do you add his name? What do you do with your name? And what do you write, your full name or your initials? Initials are not very readable.


Idea 2: Small round magnets that have a picture of each team member (this also applies to magnets with initials, or any other physical artifact that represents a team member)

This is a typically nice idea. It probably looks great and it’s kind of  funny. You would see people’s head all over the board. Wacko! I like this idea, and one day I will try it out. Although I suspect that looking at a picture of someone’s head is not as simple as reading a name. (You still have the pictures of team members on the board in case you want to see who the person is. But I haven’t talked about that yet). Obviously team members know who everyone is, but for people outside of the team, this is not the case. So using pictures to indicate who is working on what might actually makes the board less readable to people outside the team. Gotta be careful with that. And if you are using initials or color coded magnets or little cute pokémons, it’s even less readable. Too many mental connections to make to see who’s doing what.


Hello, I’m Alex! Check out my tasks!

But the main reason I haven’t tried these picture-magnets is practical. It takes time and money to build little magnets with team member pictures on them. And how many do you make? What’s the maximum number of tasks people will be working on in parallel? You would be surprised. No matter how much you encourage people to not parallelize, all kind of stuff happens in reality, and you need to have a flexible process or people will not follow it. People start stuff and get blocked, or have to wait, or the task needs to be worked on by two people, or suddenly you realize three different tasks defined during sprint planning are actually the same and should be done as one so you check them out at the same time.  Magnets, magnets, magnets. You’re probably not going to have enough.


nametagsHow to build the nametags:  these are actually Post-It “Notes Markers” (product code 670/5) with a little bit of Magic Scotch tape at the end (because they’re not Super Sticky – just like status tags). They cost next to nothing and you get 100 of each color. They are 15 x 50 mm.

You can also cut nametags yourself out of colored paper, but why would anyone go through the trouble. I would only do that in countries where you cannot find these post-its.

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“Less is more”. You heard this before, right?

This applies particularly to visual management. It is very easy to generate noise by creating visual elements that are not strictly necessary. When designing our information radiators, we should always be careful not to create waste. And any visual element that doesn’t add value is waste.

Of course, sometimes it’s not that easy to figure it out. For example: suppose you run out of yellow Post-it’s, and you see some green Post-it’s lying around. Should you use them, or is this waste?waste

By using another color, you are creating “something”. There used to be one color, now there are two. People will look at the board and wonder: “What does green stand for? What’s the difference between green and yellow?”. And there is none, you were simply out of yellow. So in this situation, using green is waste. You are also killing off your possibilities of giving green a specific meaning in the future, which you might will need.

But on to status tags and the three columns, the main topic of this post. It’s time to design your taskboard, and you have to decide the most basic of things: how many colums do I make, and what do I call them?

If you are doing Scrum, and you agreed with One Day Tasks, you will probably be tracking the flow of tasks (not stories) across your board.

What’s the simplest solution that will work?

A unit of work can have three basic states: “Not Started”, “In Progress”, and “Finished”. Most taskboards that have more than three columns are breaking up “In Progress” into intermediate, sequential phases. Typical example: “To Validate”.

There are many reasons why I would try to avoid using additional columns. It promotes specialization and local optimization. It creates two processes and a buffer where there could be a cell and single piece flow. It’s waterfallish.

But the most important reason -from the visual management perspective- is that it creates extra visual elements (more columns). It also uses more taskboard real estate, which can be scarce. All this is waste.

Blue team board

A good way to eliminate the need for extra columns is to use status tags.  For example, instead of adding a “To Validate” column, we can solve the same problem with a PLEASE TEST status tag that you stick on the task. Practically any sub-state of “In Progress” can be represented by these status tags; which are smaller, less intrusive and more flexible visual elements than columns. They are also color-coded which makes them even more powerful from the visual perspective.

So unless you’re into Kanban and you really know what you’re doing, I highly recommend you stick to the basic 3 columns. (And we’ll discuss Kanban another day, because I think status tags and the 3 columns might also be applicable there. For example, you can limit work in progress by limiting the number of available status tags.)

Status tagsThe Post-it’s I use for status tags are product number 653, 51 x 38 mm in size. I use two different color sets, that gives you around 6 total usable colors (there is some overlap between sets). I also put a very small piece of Scotch Magic tape on the top, because they are not Super Sticky.

The status tags I use will be discussed individually in separate posts.

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