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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.




Monkey bars physics

Kyle is a VP at a large manufacturing firm. His ascent up the organizational food chain has been fast and impressive, and now he's reaping the financial rewards of all his hard work. Kyle also works horrific hours, between 90 and 100 hours per week. He doesn't spent nearly as much time with his family as he'd (or they'd) like. More importantly, he's got a pile of strategic initiatives and projects as long as his arm that are lying moribund on his desk. He knows they're important to both his and the company's future success, but right now they've got about as much chance of completion as Transformers 3 does of winning the best picture Oscar. It just ain't gonna happen.

Kyle's obviously competent, but he's being held back by his own proficiency. He's still doing work that he did earlier in his career because he's really, really good at it. He's forgotten the essential physics of monkey bars that he learned on the playground: you can't move forward until you let go of previous bar.

Kyle is holding onto work that should be -- must be -- delegated to others. It's almost certain that it won't get done the way that he would have done it. And it's possible that it won't be done as well as he would have done it. If that's an issue, then it's his responsibility to create standard work to ensure that it's done his way. In any event, he can't keep doing it. If he's holding onto those lower value activities, he can't turn his attention to the bigger picture issues that the company needs him to address.

I often see companies struggle with execution because managers and executives aren't able to devote the time and attention to the critical initiatives facing their firms. They haven't internalized the physics of monkey bars. They have to let go before they can move forward.



Delegating with a Kanban

A partner in the tax practice of a law firm asked me, "How can I keep better track of the work the associates are doing? And how can I stay on top of the work I've delegated to them?" Tracking work that others are doing is a common problem, particularly in a high-priced law firm, where the clients want answers to their questions at the most inopportune times -- like the middle of dinner, or just after you've settled into watching Toy Story 1 & 2 with your kids. To be fair, if you're charging them $800 per hour, you should be ready to answer those questions. However, hounding your team to get you that information -- especially when they're watching Toy Story with their kids -- is a sure way to get your firm de-listed from the "100 Best Places To Work."

So what can you do?

Inspired by Lee Fried at Group Health Cooperative, and by Jim Benson over at Personal Kanban, I realized that the kanban is an ideal answer. (For those readers who don't know what a kanban is, for the purposes of this post, just think of it as a white board or bulletin board that's visible in the work area.)

Put each person's name down the left side of the kanban and create a row for each of them. Put the task they're assigned in the next column, and the expected completion date next to that. If you want to be fancy, you can even include some symbol that indicates about how far along they are in completing the work. Have another column that holds a simple red/green signal that indicates they're on track or they've fallen behind. And that's it.

What you've created is a simple visual management tool that allows you to quickly see how each person is doing. Here's an example of what it might look like:

Sample delegation kanban

In this screenshot, I've adopted Jim's approach (and terminology) by breaking work into three buckets: "To Do," "Doing," and "Done." This added information helps provide context for where you are in a larger project.

There's nothing earth-shaking about this approach, but I think it falls into the sweet spot between something that's too small for full-blown project management software, and something that's to big for a one-person task list. Having it prominently posted ensures that the work doesn't disappear into a computer file. And the red/green status bar enables someone to signal for help without having to schedule a formal meeting.