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Status tags are my preferred approach to visually attaching state metadata to work items.

In plain english, what this means is that if you have a task, represented for example by a standard size Post-it, you would add a physical tag, represented by a smaller colored Post-it, to indicate it has some particular status, such as “Blocked” or “Delegated” or “Bug” or “Please Test”. This creates visibility and awareness and enables the right people to react to that new status fast.

A visual alternative to tagging is creating special columns or specially designated areas in your taskboard that fulfill the same purpose.

While this is valid, and many people do it, I much prefer tagging to that approach. Taskboard real estate is expensive. If you start creating special areas or columns for each status a piece of work can have, you might quickly fill your Taskboard with empty zones. Furthermore, changing the structure of your taskboard is cumbersome. This might limit the number of status areas you create. Too many areas and columns make people think about waterfall processes, even if they are not meant to be used. For example, look at the picture of the following kanban board:

While it looks good because it was done with care, there is much wasted space in those columns and boxes. And let’s take a closer look at those separate areas at the right. In this example we see a “Back to business” box. What if this status is very temporary? In that case, you are probably better off tagging it. Creating the box has allowed work to accumulate there, unchecked. Are all those post-its supposed to be going back to the main board? Someone is going to be spending some serious time moving post-its back and forth…

Another example: let’s assume a task that involves coding but is functionally testeable is being developed. During the same day the following happens:

  • A developer starts and finishes it
  • Someone else tests it and finds a bug
  • The original developer fixes the bug
  • The task is re-tested and this time declared “done”.

This is a typical scenario in Agile teams. If you have separate columns for “In development”, “To validate”, “Defect found”, you are going to spend the whole day moving the task around columns. People might lose track of where the task went (well, not really – but it does require more effort to locate it). I prefer the much simpler solution of leaving the task in place and rotating status tags on top of it. Another advantage: if it would go through this code-test-bug-fix cycle many times, you can place status tags on top of others, creating a “traceability” effect. With columns, you can’t do that.

Tagging is very flexible. There is no limit to the number of tags you can create. Some teams create temporary tags for special occasions. In the example above, the tag “checked” was created specifically for the occasion. This can be done quickly and easily by the team by their own initiative. Almost no work is required and suddenly your visual management process includes a new status.

I think the elegance, flexibility and visual appeal of using colored tags for indicating task status cannot be denied. Even in a software tool, it looks good, as the example below shows.

For physical taskboards, my preferred tags are Post-it 653 which come in many different colors. They are the 1.5″x 2″ small ones.

Important detail: if you just stick this small post-it onto a bigger one, it will not stick, it will fall off almost instantly. That’s why I use a small piece of Scotch Magic tape with each status tag. See the first picture in this post for a detail.

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This is my recount of my session at Agile 2009 Chicago. It was titled “Visual Management for Agile Teams” and was part of the Manifesting Agility stage.

VMW Agile 2009

The session went well, around 36 people came and left 27 session reviews. Many people found value in the practical, down-to-earth approach of the workshop, leaving comments such as “excellent hands-on demo”, “extremely applicable information”, “finally something hands-on practical” and “very helpful”. Review averages were: Met expectations 4.4/5; Would recommend 4.3/5; Presentation skills 4.1/5; Command of topic 4.6/5; Matched description 4.4/5 and Overall 4.4/5.

I changed the format and structure of the session a little bit. First I gave a short presentation to introduce the topic. I was nervous and it showed… I’ll do better next time. We quickly moved on to starting the workshop itself. Each team was given a bag of office supplies and a blank taskboard. They set themselves up around a table.


The format of the workshop is simple: teams have to build taskboards, following some guidelines such as “the boards must show who is working on what”. The first round gave teams 20 minutes to figure out what they were going to do and how to implement it. Here is the red team getting busy:


The blue team had a good idea: they did a rapid prototype on a paper on the wall, and only after that started building their taskboard.

Visual Management Workshop at Agile 2009

More taskboard building:


After a first round of taskboard building, people spread out to review other team’s boards.


Some stayed behind to present and defend their boards…


Finally, we did another round of taskboard improvement with new requirements, and another review session. To close, I presented my own version of the taskboard that I had built the night before in the hotel room.



These are the final taskboards of all four participating teams, with comments.  Click through to see a larger version of each taskboard. My comments are meant to show how each team approached a certain problem, the idea is to point out to the reader the different ideas that emerged.

Blue team


  • They found and put up some team pictures. They used them to assign a color to each member and used colors as nametags. The only problem with this is that with a larger team you will run out of colors.
  • They created an “URGENT” swimlane for expedited work. It is clearly distinguishable with a different color tape and a header. It is at the bottom, but they said during the workshop that if they would have had more time, they would have refactored their taskboard and put it at the top. Very good solution.
  • They used red stars to indicate all impediments. I’m not so sure I would use this, as stars connote something good to me. But you can certainly see impediments clearly.
  • They re-wrote their story cards in big blue post-it’s; other teams simply stuck up the printed stories.
  • They put columns for “QA” and “Done Today”.  In the QA column there is a single small yellow post-it that says “BUG”. No idea where the bug is though.
  • Each story has tasks of a different color. There does not seem to be any significance to this other than visually pointing out that tasks belong to different stories.

Red Team


  • They put their project backlog on the leftmost column. From there, they can “pull” stories into the Sprint backlog. When an urgent story came in, they placed it on top.
  • They have a column “WIP Blocked” and next to it “WIP”. Another column is called “Done today”.
  • They have a calendar that shows at what moment during the week they have Planning, Retrospective and Release. This allows me to see that they do 1-week iterations.
  • They used different colored post-its to indicate different types of specialist work. This is a very good idea (where it makes sense). In the bottom right hand corner is the color legend.
  • They did not use the red electrical tape to make their swimlanes, instead opting to go for a blue masking tape. This makes it harder to identify them as the red team.

Yellow team


  • I like how this team kept their board “clean”, in comparison with other teams. Also, they put the most effort into making sure their swimlanes were tidy.
  • They have only 3 columns, yellow post-its and few elements, keeping the board clean and uncluttered. It is much more relaxing to look at.
  • They used red stars as nametags. Each star has the name of a team member written on it.
  • They used small green post-its as “DONE” tags. They put their DONE tasks on the Complete column, so during the daily standup all they will do is remove the green tag I assume.
  • They move finished stories to the 3rd column together with all the tags. For some reason, they finished the least priority story first. They seem to be working on everything at the same time.
  • Pink post-its indicate a special situation is happening with that task.

Green team


  • The first thing you notice is that this team opted for no horizontal swimlanes. This makes the board lighter and cleaner, but might cause confusion as to where tasks belong. To compensate, they gave each story different colored tasks as we saw the Blue team did before. This is an interesting design alternative to consider.
  • Another original idea is the use of Post-it flags as status indicators with a clear legend on the lower right hand corner. Some examples include “defect found”, “retest”, “urgent” and “blocked”. This is the first time I see it and I want to say that it is an interesting idea. The Post-it flags are unobtrusive and easy to detach. I will add Post-it flags to the Elements of Taskboard Design page.
  • They also have the Product backlog on the left-hand column and pull stories into their WIP backlog like the Red team.

Xavier’s board


For completeness, here is my board. The only new thing if you follow my blog is that I decided to use pink post-its instead of yellow post-its for normal tasks, simply for effect. But I didn’t find any value in it and actually the pink color is too noisy. So I will definitively stick to yellow (there are economic reasons for using yellow for tasks too – yellow super stickies are cheaper)


I want to thank all participants for coming to my session. I think the session was a success, and each team left me with new ideas and lessons learned.

  • From the Blue Team, I learned I can create a priority swimlane which is visually clear.
  • From the Red Team, I learned to use colors to indicate the nature of work. This could be used to visually identify the need for more specialists for example.
  • From the Yellow Team, I learned the value of keeping it simple and clean. Overloading your board with elements and colors creates visual saturation and is tiresome to the sight.
  • From the Green Team, I learned to use Post-it flags as status tags. They are small, elegant and unobtrusive.

I also wish to thank the following friends who helped me out: Mark Levison for all the advice before and during the conference, Karl Scotland for helping me during the session and for motivating me, Dan Mezick, stage producer, who came to visit during the session and seemed to really care about the quality of his stage; Tobias Mayer for always supporting me; and above all my sweetheart Joke Vandemaele without whom I would not be able to do any of this.

Thanks to you all!

PS: If you missed this session and would like to attend, I will be doing a short version of it at the Agile Eastern European Conference in Kiev next week. Registration for the conference is still open!


It will also be presented at Agiles 2009 in Florianópolis and at XP Days Benelux 2009. See you there!

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Scrum of Scrums detailIn Scrum, the “Scrum of Scrums” is a way to ensure alignment and coordination across different teams, or among different sub-teams of a large Team.

How big is the Team?

A Team is a group of people collaborating towards a common goal. Sometimes it’s not that easy to pick your goal, and thus figure out who the Team is, or who it should be. On one hand, small teams are good. Small is simple, small is beautiful.  So maybe you should pick a small goal, and make a small Team.

On the other hand, you should try to look at the system as a whole. This could mean anything: a project, a department, the whole company… What is the ultimate system, but the Organization itself? Your whole company is the Team, from the Systems Thinking perspective. Especially for small companies. So maybe you should think of a large Team.

Most likely, we need to strike a balance between these two dichotomic approaches.

I have found my comfort zone with a simple, practical definition: One Team, One Backlog.

Splitting it up

Banana SplitLet’s assume you found your definition of Team, and you have more than ten people in it.  Since the ideal team size is 5 to 9, you probably want to split them up. But you don’t want to lose the concept of  one Team. The recommended approach is to break them up into sub-teams. I will discuss some ideas for creating these sub-teams and for visualizing their work, while trying to keep and respect the spirit and vision of the one (big) Team.

Feature teams

Using the same logic regarding why it is interesting for team members to be as cross-functional as possible, the best strategy for making sub-teams is to create cross-functional feature teams, as opposed to ‘component’ teams or -god forbid- teams that specialize in a certain technology or skill (like  ‘QA team’ or ‘.Net team’).

Feature teams are teams that work on features, i.e. stories. Pieces of business value. They are value-driven teams, whereas other sub-team splitting strategies (component, skill, etc) create function-driven teams that invariably fail to deliver business value and create local optimizations and waste.

You create your feature teams by spreading out the knowledge, skills and experience equally. The goal is that any team can do any story in the backlog.  You should stress that the “real” Team is the big one. Sub-teams are just created for communication and coordination purposes. In my opinion, they should not develop too strong a team identity. For example, I would not measure sub-team velocity, and I would make sure people rotate from sub-team to sub-team a lot.

You can then work with a single, large backlog and distribute stories in round-robin fashion.

Colored teams

I like to give sub-teams a color for a name. E.g “Red team”, “Blue team”, etc.  Colors are very visual and we will be able to use this to our advantage. For example I use electric tape of the same color to create their taskboard, which gives them an immediate strong visual identity (see picture below). Another reason colors are good is that they are non-hierarchical, and people don’t attach themselves that much to a color.


The Black team

In large projects, particularly in transitioning organizations, there are always some people left floating around that are not doing any actual work at team/trenches level.  I put them in the Black team. This is a pseudo-management team that mostly combines the responsibilities of Product Owner and Scrum Master (in the same team, not the same person!) and any other role that you either want to share across teams or that you simply can’t get rid of.

Typical examples of people who we have put in the Black team include:

  • all the ex-Project Managers, who now had to remove impediments full-time (they also had a lot of administrative work to do: fake Gantt charts, fill in timesheets, useless reports, etc)
  • the Agile Coach
  • the Product Owner(s)
  • an Architect from Architecture (we later convinced him to move into the trenches with the real teams)
  • a QA Team Lead who didn’t want to test (we later got rid of him, once the testers he used to C&C were doing agile testing)
  • a Release Coordinator, whose job was to beg to Infrastructure to deploy our app into production (this was a full time job)
  • etc.

As you can see these were mostly roles that existed because we were doing Scrum within a traditional large organization. In any case, the idea is to group all these people into one “team” so as to not leave any loose ends. Ideally they will jell and work cooperatively, otherwise at least you can visualize their work by putting up a taskboard for them. For example on this picture below, most tasks are either impediments or things that have to be delegated to people outside of the Team. The horizontal lines are not stories but simply priority slots, i.e. High Priority, Medium and Low. If I would have known at the time, I would have put WIP limits, because nothing was ever getting done here. :D

Scrum Black Team

The Scrum of Scrums

Ok, let’s move on to the interesting part. Each sub-team has their scrumboard with the stories they have selected for the current Sprint, divided into tasks as usual. How do we visualize what is going on at Big Team level? How do we keep track of so much work? We need to change the level of granularity. In the Scrum of Scrums, you only visualize stories. You create the “Scrum of Scrums storyboard” where every story that is currently open is visualized, with the team that has it and the current status indicated. The picture below shows such a board at the beginning of a Sprint. Click on the picture for a larger version. Note: This is actually the same physical whiteboard as pictured above… you are just looking at the other side! The Scrum of Scrums side is pointing towards the hallway, so passer-bys can look at it.

Scrumboard Scrum of Scrums 1

There are only two columns: “Story” and “Status”. Story has a copy of the story card that is on the team board. Status is normally “not started, “in progress”,  “done” or “done-done” (a curious distinction between “we think we’re done” and “we’re sure we’re done”). This last done-done was indicated with a red star. Each story has a little magnet indicating which team is working on it, but we also experimented with other visual elements like creating status tags of the color of the team. In this example you see both at the same time: a Green Team story will have a green “in progress” tag, and also a green magnet.

The mechanics for the Scrum of Scrums are simple: after the daily Scrums, each team sends a rotating delegate to give a brief status report on each of their open stories to the other delegates and the Product Owner. The delegate is then responsible for updating the rest of his sub-team members on what’s going on at project level (something that never happens, but oh well). Of course sometimes a lot more people show up during the Scrum of Scrums. Anybody who is interested in knowing what’s going on at Big Team level goes.

Note: The black and blue tape indicate nothing in this case, we simply didn’t have enough tape of the same color, and our boss was a fan of Club Brugge (whose colors are black & blue), so we made it for him.

This is how the board might look like towards the end of the Sprint, on a good Sprint where lots of stuff got done. (Click for large version)


Note how you can quickly visualize different types of problems.

  • Several top priority stories are not getting finished. In particular the #1 top priority story.
  • The yellow team seems to be in trouble. I see 3 yellow “in progress” and only red star with yellow magnet. Also comparing yellow to green, red and blue you can see the difference.

If you looked at the large version of the picture, you probably noticed those white horizontal lines that say for example “End of Sprint 9 Demo: 8/Sep”. This is a visual way of indicating what was the scope taken for Sprint 9. The point here is that this was a Team that was not delivering all they started, and was dragging along open stories. Some stories were blocked, others underestimated, some teams had sick people… for whatever the reason work wasn’t getting finished, and since it was not possible to limit WIP for political reasons, we just let the teams take more work, keeping existing stories open. But with this board at least the situation was kept clearly visible and the Product Owner knew perfectly well what was going on.

A last picture with some comments, in a style similar to my original “Scrum Board with Comments” picture:

Scrumboard Scrum of Scrums with comments

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We hear a lot of talk about commitment in Agile circles lately. But what is commitment? As it turns out, there are several meanings to the word. Leaving aside being committed to an asylum (which is where many of us will end if the methodology wars go on), the two dictionary definitions we care about are:

2a: an agreement or pledge to do something in the future
2c: the state or an instance of being obligated or emotionally impelled
(source: Webster’s Dictionary online)

I would like to refer to these two as “hard commitment” and “soft commitment”.

A hard commitment is essentially a promise, as in: “I commit to finishing this report by the end of the week”

People without hard commitments work without deadlines. Their work is done when it is done. An example is scientists or people working in Google-style companies.

(Note: Don’t confuse “no deadlines” with low productivity: not having a deadline means nobody forces you to predict a delivery date or conform to a schedule, not that you can get by without actually doing anything)

A soft commitment, by contrast, is an expression of an emotional state, of caring:

“I am commited to this relationship”

and more to the point:

“I am committed to this team” or “I am committed to this project”.

People without soft commitment are people who “just want to get their work done and go home”, typically because they either don’t enjoy their work or they are demotivated or burned out.

What type of commitment do we care about in the Agile world?

As it turns out, we seem to care about both. And we don’t distinguish too much between them. But there is a big difference between the two.

Hard commitments are typical in command and control, plan driven environments and dysfunctional organizations. This is a world where deadlines abound, monitored and enforced by armies of Gantt-chart wielding project managers who love to micromanage. In these projects, hard commitments are everything; and they translate into unmissable deadlines that themselves translate into long working hours, unsustainable pace, cutting on quality and eventually large turnover and technical debt.

A defining characteristic of these environments is that there is generally punishment envisioned for not living up to your hard commitments. From not making your bonus, to being publicly chastised by your boss, all the way to being fired; failing to comply with hard commitments is taken very seriously in these organizations because deadlines are the heart and soul of plan-driven management processes. Missing deadlines, simply put, costs money. Lots of it. Money in change management overhead, and money in penalties over contractual obligations missed.

Soft commitments, on the other hand, abound in startup type organizations, small projects and any environment where people are happy, work as a team, take pride in their work and care about the result.


Scrum: the all-commitment framework

Scrum is a framework that requires both soft and hard commitments from team members. The team is required to work as a team (for which soft commitment is required) and to commit to finishing a certain amount of work  in one Sprint. Now, I don’t like hard commitments. I associate them invariably with command and control thinking. It is all too common to force people into accepting a hard commitment, by insinuating that bad things will happen if we don’t make a deadline or simply by giving an order:  “make the deadline or you’re fired”.

But, in contrast to plan-driven processes, the difference is that in Scrum the hard commitment comes from within the team itself. It is not imposed from above. This is why many people see it as  a “healthy” hard commitment.

Scrum and hard commitment failure

Have you ever seen a Scrum team that does not make its sprint goal? Of course you have. In fact, failure to meet hard commitments in Scrum is so common, Jurgen Appelo blogged about it today.

Let’s now compare Scrum with with plan-driven processes. What happens in Scrum if a team does not make its commitment?

I can envision any or all of the following happening if a team does not deliver all it promised:

  • Nothing; since the Product Owner already knew they were behind schedule and adjusted her expectations a week ago.
  • They get slapped in the buttocks by the Product Owner, who says something along the lines of “Bad boys! Bad boys! Don’t do this again!”
  • The team feels bad about it. Someone might cry (yeah, right). They go into a retrospective to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Then they go for a beer.

See, in Scrum there is practically no external punishment for not delivering. Nobody will get fired. Nobody will lose their bonus. The only “punishment” is the team feeling more or less embarrassed because they overcommitted. This can hardly be seen as punishment when compared to a command-and-control organization.

Delivery in Scrum is governed by Systems Thinking. Essentially this means that if a team does not deliver all it promised, it is not the team that is at fault, because it is out of their control. It is the system that governs performance. (In this case, the system refers to the way work is chopped up and estimated and velocity is calculated.) “Not making it” only means that System capacity is lower than expected, or the system is unstable. The common solution is to reassess your expected Velocity to make it lower, and take less work next Sprint. And maybe to divide your work into smaller pieces. In any case, there can and should be no punishments dealt to the team.

So what is the value of making a hard commitment without punishment? What’s the point of committing to something, if everybody in the game knows that when we don’t keep the promise, nothing will happen?

Hard commitments in Scrum might, in practice, not be as ‘hard’ as they seem. Why try to make them look harder?

Kanban: the no-commitment framework

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the new Kanban ultra-lighweight framework. In Kanban there are no iterations and no hard commitments. You just limit Work In Progress and pull in work. Things are done when they are done, based on prioritization, cycle time and lead time. Proponents like to state that one of the benefits of Kanban is that it is a framework that (unlike Scrum) you can put in place in existing waterfall organizations without requiring disruptive change [1]. Kanban works along with the pre-existing method. For example, a tester just has test whatever he pulls into his plate and pass it along. No teamwork or commitment is initially required where it did not exist before. (Note to Kanban advocates: of course undoubtedly things will be better if there is a commited team; but the idea, if I understand correctly, is that Kanban will plug into the existing process, with or without a team).

Moving towards a “soft commitment only” framework

What would a framework in the upper left-hand quadrant look like? Soft commitment without hard commitment?

  • It would require healthy, self-organized teams.
  • It would require no deadlines, no “sprint goals”.

I believe both Scrum and Kanban can evolve in this direction.

For Kanban, it would probably mean adding the restriction that people have to work as a self-organized team. It becomes the responsibility of everyone to get work to fully done. This would maybe make Kanban less suitable for immediate implementation in waterfall organizations.

For Scrum, it would mean dropping the restriction that Teams have to “commit to delivering a certain amount of features during a Sprint” and going towards a more continuous flow paradigm. In this way, at Sprint Planning, teams would just pull the amount of stories they think they can do, but without explicitly committing to finishing them. They would do their best, and any unfinished stories would simply remain as top priority for the next Sprint. The Product Owner would monitor Velocity and progress during the Sprint, and adjust her expectations of what will be delivered accordingly. It is really just a simple change. Almost insignificant.


But is anybody interested?

Many people who practice Scrum correctly will swear by hard commitments. I have raised this issue several times and have always been fiercely rebutted. These people, who defend hard commitments with energy, are divided in two camps:

Camp A, the “Transitioning organization” camp: this is the camp that has two faces. Inwards they do Scrum, outwards (towards their external customers, or towards Senior Management) they maintain a plan-driven façade. They are in transition, having implemented Scrum internally but failing (or not yet getting around to) selling it to external stakeholders.

The problem with this camp is that many times they cannot or do not shield the Team from the external stakeholders. They pass on the Sprint scope as a hard commitment to the outside world, creating pressure on the team. Still, they are trapped with the problem that they cannot punish the team if it fails to achieve. Scrum in such a situation is very difficult.

Camp B”: the “People are Lazy” camp: this camp believes that people are not intrinsically motivated to do their best, and need someone with a whip (even if it is an imaginary whip in the form of a deadline) to keep whipping them in order to work hard and do their best. They think that people are naturally lazy, and if we would have a world without clear goals or deadlines, nobody would get anything done. It is surprising the number of software developers who think this way even of themselves.

This is more difficult to challenge. I don’t agree with this camp mostly on philosophical grounds. Basically I do not believe that this is true of human nature. Maybe I am idealistic. Or maybe they are right, and it is true that most people hate their job and are not intrinsically motivated to do their best. Or maybe we have been living too long in a command and control culture. So long that we have forgotten that work is one of the fundamental human rights, and many people actually like to work .

[1] David J Anderson, “Kanban: applying principles and evolving process solutions”, Lean and Kanban 2009 conference

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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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Introducing the Visual Management Blog, a space for the discussion of ideas and examples of Visual Management applied to Agile teams and project management.

What is Visual Management?

Visual Management is the practice of using information visualization techniques to manage work. A simple example is using sticky notes on a wall to manage a list of tasks, a better (and more complex) example is kanban. Many visual management ideas come from traditional Lean thinking and Toyota, but these techniques are also very popular within the Agile Software Development community.

Benefits of Visual Management

Visual management is generally regarded as a clear, simple and effective way to organize and present work . It can also be perceived as fun, since visual elements bring color and life into an otherwise boring office environment. Another benefit of visual management -often overlooked- is that it can positively influence the behavior and attitude of team members, managers and stakeholders. How? For example, by helping build transparency and trust.

Information Radiators and Visual Management

red lava lamp

“Information Radiator” is a popular term invented by Alistair Cockburn that is used to describe any artifact that conveys project information and is publicly displayed in the workspace or surroundings. Information radiators are very popular in the Agile world, and they are an essential component of visual management. Most Agile teams recognize the value of information radiators and implement them to some degree in their processes. The three most popular information radiators are Task Boards, Big Visible Charts (which includes burndowns and family) and Continuous Integration build health indicators (including lava lamps and stolen street lights). In this article I will focus on task boards, since I find them the most critical and least discussed information radiator.

Task Boards

The most important information radiator in visual management is the Task Board. (When doing Scrum, I sometimes call task boards Scrumboards). The task board has the mission of visually representing the work that is being done by the team. They are the most complex and versatile artifact: a physical task board is a “living” entity that has to be manually maintained.  I believe boards are being undervalued by most agile teams today. This might be because there has not been a lot of focus on their potential, or perhaps there are simply not many examples around on what makes a great task board. In any case, it’s time to take task boards to the next level. [1]

What makes a great Task Board?

A good task board should be carefully designed with readability and usability in mind, and the project methodology should actively rely on it. This implies that the use of the task board should be standardized and form part of the process. If task boards (and other information radiators) are not an integral part of the project methodology, maintaining them might be perceived as overhead or duplication of work. This results in boards not being updated and becoming out of sync with the work actually being done. An incomplete or stale task board is worthless. A task board is a living entity and should be kept healthy.

scrum task board

You have a great task board if…

  • Team members never complain about having to use it.
  • The daily standup happens against it.
  • Random people that pass by stop to look at it, expressing interest and curiosity.
  • Your boss has proudly shown it to his boss.
  • You see team members updating it regularly during the day.
  • It passes the hallway usability test: a person who has never seen it before can understand it quickly and without explanations.
  • You catch a senior manager walking the floor and looking at it.
  • It just looks great!

Visualizing waste

When designing the process to be used with the task board, two important factors should be taken into account: the first is how to visualize work that is not directly associated with the value-added activities being performed (i.e. in Scrum, tasks that do not belong to any story within the current sprint). Visualizing waste can sometimes be as important as visualizing value-added activities. So it is desirable to come up with a system that will visualize any work being performed. As an example on how to achieve this, I dedicate the top row of each board to “Unplanned items and legacy issues”, a placeholder for any task that does not belong to a current story. Bugs that come up (belonging to stories already delivered) go there, random tasks (e.g. “reinstall Windows”) too.

Work granularity

The second important factor is the level of granularity we will visualize. In my experience the ideal size of tasks is one day. (This is only a guideline and should be taken as such. As long as the average task size is around a day, you should be OK.) The goal is to see regular flow on a daily basis. Sometimes people don’t see the benefits of having 1-day tasks and go for much bigger lenghts. It seems difficult to achieve the benefits of visual management with work units of that size. The granularity is simply too big; not enough movement will be seen, not enough detail will be shown.

Aesthetics and Usability

Most task boards are set up without giving too much thought to aesthetics and usability.  They are hastily made, using available materials and without putting much attention to detail. As an example, in many boards columns are hand drawn with whiteboard marker, and tasks written in ballpoint pen or pencil on whatever material is available (large post-it, small post-it, index card, etc). There are no guidelines regarding the use of colors or materials, and no defined process for using the board. All this makes for very low readability and poor usability in general. If you are standing two meters from such a board, it looks sloppy and is rather illegible. With some effort, we can clearly do better than that!


I would like to emphasize the value of task board design and usability, and of implementing a standardized process regarding how to use it (which implies using standardized materials). This has really been a key success factor for me, helping me smoothly introduce Scrum to new teams that were at the Shu level.

I will be publishing illustrated examples of the task board best practices I have gathered over time in the series Elements of  taskboard design.

Results of applying Visual Management

In my experience, quality information radiators can become central to an Agile software development process for co-located teams. Most daily activities revolve around the task board. The burndown and backlog show project status at a glance. Build health is clearly displayed. In many cases good task boards result in teams not needing a bug tracking system anymore. Managers are at ease. Product owners claim to be able to sniff trouble coming up immediately, by visualizing trends on the boards. And the most important result: increased transparency and trust created among all parties.

Effect on team members

The main effect I observe among team members is increased accountability. High visibility and clear guidelines ensure team members cannot hide work (or non-work) from each other. This tends to expose things, but it is done with ground rules that people find quite reasonable. Thus accountability is achieved in a smooth way. This builds transparency among team members, which in turn builds trust.

This is also a good way for team members to learn to define and select their own work instead of having work assigned to them. Many transitioning teams struggle with this step, especially since it might imply a loss of perceived authority by the former manager or team lead.

Behavioral changes in Management

Project management and the Product Owner might perceive a decrease in risk: all work being clearly visible, there is less chance of issues going undetected and of people slacking off, and it is easy to keep track of progress.

Another benefit for people in positions of responsibility is that they can obtain the peace of mind sensation they would theoretically get from “micromanaging” a team, without any of the drawbacks.  They know that at any moment, if they would want to, they can go and see exactly what everybody is doing and the status of every work item, to any desired level of detail, with zero overhead and without causing any discomfort to anyone. The goal here is that managers, whenever they feel that need for control tickling them, will go to the task board instead of to the team members. This is especially good for enabling teams transitioning to Agile to self-manage.

Appendix: Lean / Kanban development and Visual Management

Visual management is an important part of Lean. As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there are several examples within the Lean literature on using visual tools in production or factory settings. These ideas also extend to Lean Product Development [2], but there are not that many examples or pictures out there.  The Kanban development movement -which is a relatively frontier area at the moment-  explicitly takes a visual approach to managing work, and everything I have seen features strong visual management aspects. But, understandably, most of the focus of Kanban at this point is being put on describing the more important Lean aspects of the methodology such as cycle time, single piece flow, limiting to capacity, etc. and not on usability or design of the boards themselves. I hope this article will help introduce some ideas on task board best practices to the Lean/Kanban movement, since they already have a strong bias towards visual management.

kanban board


[1] Researching this article, I found a very good post specifically focused on task boards, but it is mostly introductory and surveyal: Tom Perry’s Task Boards: telling a compelling story . There is also a great article out there that comes from a Lean practitioner and is very similar in spirit to what I wrote here (including what I consider a very nice -albeit simple- board): Visual Management and Self-Reliance by Peter Abilla. BTW, this guy also interviewed Mary Poppendieck! Coincidence?

Some other articles touching the subject:

  • Lisa Owens wrote a short article on the Scrum Alliance website with a promising title but unfortunately not that much content and no pictures: Attractive task boards.
  • Maarten Volders, who was part of my first Scrum team and helped develop some of the tecniques used in my task boards, complains about his current employer’s “task boards gone wrong” but apparently couldn’t get any pictures of them.

[2] Morgan/Liker in “The Toyota Product Development System” dedicate a paragraph (page 262) to Visual Management when describing the obeya room, saying “Visual management is key to effective communication[…]”. Mary and Tom also talk about the importance of the “Visual Workplace” in one of their books.

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