When you can see it, you can manage it.

My friend Paul works at a company that assesses specialty items -- Ming vases, Bugatti autos, antique crystal decanters, Pez dispenser collections, and the like -- for insurance companies. Most of their adjusters work from home. This situation creates a real problem for Paul. It's difficult to see how much work each person has in their queue, because no one is co-located. It's also difficult to see if people are falling behind in the anticipated throughput of their work. If you think about a traditional factory, it's easy to see what work is in the queue -- just look at the parts on the assembly line. It's also easy to see what work is supposed to get done that hour and that day: there's a big board at the head of the line listing hourly production targets and actuals. If there's a problem with production, it's easy to spot.

But that's not true at Paul's company. With everyone scattered around the country, and with the work existing largely in the form of electronic files, it's tough to tell what the current state is. The work is invisible. Traditional visual management tools like centrally located whiteboards won't work, because so few people are at the office. Paul tried making people's Outlook calendars public, but that didn't provide a clear picture of the status of each claim, or the workload on each person. Some of the staff complained about heavy workloads, but it was difficult to get a handle on the total volume of work, and the load on each person.

Paul designed a series of interlocking spreadsheets that showed each person's workload associated with each claim, and color-coded the backlog. Here's one of the forms:

In this screenshot, you can clearly see each person's workload. Even cooler is the "thermostat." Less than 5 days of work in the queue, and the thermostat is green. 6-10 days of work in the queue, and automatically turns yellow. Over 10 days, and it automatically turns red. As new work comes in, management can level-load the tasks by allocating them appropriately across the team of adjusters. More importantly, this visual management board acts as a signal that there may be a problem ("Why is Kate so backed up?"), and it helps identify problems in the adjustment process ("What is it about the Lee claim that makes the research take 1.7 days?") so they can engage in kaizen.

Paul is the first to admit that these spreadsheets aren't perfect. But it's a good first step towards understanding the current state and identifying process areas for improvement. Prior to this, the only thing Paul knew for sure was that Kate complained she was overworked -- which wasn't very helpful. And they only addressed the overall status of their backlog at weekly meetings.

The challenge -- and the benefits -- for you are clear. Making your team's work visible enables you to improve it. It may be difficult due to the nature of the work and the physical location of the team, but it's seldom impossible.

Remember: when you can see it, you can manage it.