Visual management

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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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Recently, Portia Tung was reviewing my session proposal on Visual Management (with Laurent Morisseau) to the XP Days Benelux 2009 conference. She commented that it would be nice if I could give some scientific background for all this Visual Management and taskboard stuff that I write about. Since half my family and many of my friends are scientists, this is a challenge too tempting to pass. The only thing I ask of Portia is to understand that this is not something I can put together in a couple of weeks! I will try to (slowly) start adding some scientific theory behind these writings.  Iteratively and incrementally, starting today.

By coincidence, last week my friend Ariel Aizemberg sent me a TED Talk video that is spot on the topic and makes a good starting point. This video is short (6 minutes), informative and entertaining. Even if you don’t care about science too much, you will surely enjoy the presentation style.

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