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Visual Management


Why Visual Management Matters

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 9.28.57 AM
Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 9.28.57 AM

Bringing an organization, or even just a functional process within that organization, to higher levels of performance is a challenge. Workers often don’t know how well (or poorly) they’re functioning—if it’s always taken 7 days to close the monthly books, or 15 months to get through the product development cycle, then it’s just business as usual. Or people can’t see the problems their work creates for colleagues working downstream. Or there’s a deep-seated “us vs. them” feeling: “We do our jobs well in marketing, but it’s those guys in sales that create all the problems.” Or people can’t even agree on what the actual problems are. Or they just don’t care. That’s why visual management is so important. When people can see the processes in which they work with a value stream map (sorry, Pete Abilla), and when they can monitor and measure that process with visual controls, the obstacles to improvement are much easier to overcome. Rendering the current condition visible in a map and/or a dashboard externalizes it, so that we can examine it together, from the same perspective. As Michael Ballé writes in Lead With Respect, “we see together, so we know together, so we can act together.”

Visibility enables you to transcend the resistance to change that comes from differing perspectives, and harness your team’s innate creativity to create a better future.


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Reversing the vector of accountability


One of the most unappreciated benefits of leader standard work is the powerful way in which it reverses the “vector of accountability.”

When we talk about accountability in an organization, typically we refer to the way in which lower level staff is accountable to executives (or managers, or supervisors) for certain actions. Workers must be held accountable if we want to execute and perform well. In this view, the vector of accountability always points upwards, from the front lines to leadership.

This is where leader standard work comes in. When a CEO makes a commitment to visit the shop floor (or the marketing department, or the warehouse) each day and learn what her people are doing and what obstacles they face, she’s now accountable to her team for performance. When a VP creates standard work obligating him to participate in 5S activities once per month, he’s making a promise to his team that he must fulfill or risk compromising his leadership credentials. The vector of accountability flips: the leader is now accountable to the team.

The psychological implications of this reversal are profound. Any organization comprises a web of human relationships, and for those relationships to be healthy and successful, there must be some degree of symmetry. Demanding that lower level staff be accountable to leaders without a corresponding accountability of leaders to lower level staff is a recipe for unhealthy, weak relationships. Reversing the vector of accountability brings balance to the interpersonal relationships in an organization. It’s a concrete way of leading with humility, of being a servant leader.

To implement this idea, post your standard work in the open, visible to the entire company. Create a simple check sheet for the activities that shows what you’ll do and when, and bring it with you when you do that standard work. Then—and this is key—your team checks the boxes to show that you did, in fact, fulfill your commitment. They validate your standard work. Lastly, post the filled in check sheet where everyone can see it.

Try it. It’s one more way to show respect for people. You’ll be amazed at the transformation in your relationships with your team.

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Two Prerequisites for Process Improvement


I've been talking to a few companies recently about their struggles to improve their product development processes. I realized that they were missing the two prerequisites for improvement: process clarity and process stability.

If you don't have clarity, improvement efforts will simply be reinventing the wheel. If you don't have stability (or predictability), then you're sailing without a compass.

First make the process visible. Then make sure it's followed. Now you can move forward.

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Why you need to make processes visible

One of my clients is trying to improve their product development processes. They have two major value streams: one for softgoods (cut and sew products) and one for hardgoods (products requiring injection molds). The development timelines on these two streams are fairly different, although both products are sold to the same customers during the same seasons. The hardgoods process always seemed to be late, with last minute changes and late nights for both the engineers and the factories. As the first step in improving the process, representatives from all parts of the value stream -- product managers, designers, engineers, logistics, marketing, and sales got together to map the entire process.

Turns out, the major problem was gobsmackingly obvious: the engineers thought the product had to be finalized and ready to go in time for the first customer delivery date. But the sales team needed the product to be finalized and ready to go for the salesman samples -- two months earlier. Whoops.

The softgoods team already knew this and operated on this model. It was just assumed that the hardgoods team operated this way as well. But making assumptions is never a good idea:

It was only the visualization of the process that laid bare the mistaken assumptions.

There's still plenty of improvement opportunity in the process. But with the ambiguity in the delivery date cleared up, the team now has the possibility of actually meeting customer needs.



Hiding from Managers is not the sign of a Kaizen Culture.

Harvard Business School professors are at it again. Last week, I was incredulous about their research suggesting that maintaining "strategic inefficiencies" in a hospital is a savvy way to discourage physicians from ordering unnecessary tests. This week I'm gobsmacked by their research suggesting that decreasing observation of workers increases productivity. I'm sure that Bill Waddell will soon be fulminating about Harvard's ivory tower view more convincingly than I will. But in the meantime, check out what Professor Ethan Bernstein calls the Transparency Paradoxthat watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency throughout the organization. In his studies at a global contract manufacturer's plant in Southern China, his team of researchers

were quietly shown 'better ways' of accomplishing tasks by their peers-a 'ton of little tricks' that 'kept production going' or enabled 'faster, easier, and/or safer production,'" he writes. "Then they were told 'whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don't do that, because they'll get mad.'"

The official company practices happened to be less effective than the tribal tricks of the trade—tricks that the employees hid from the higher-ups, thus thwarting the goal of learning by observing. Bernstein says that there was no ill-intent or cheating behind such hiding behavior, but merely a rational calculation about human behavior: Operators were hiding their freshest, most innovative techniques from management so as not to "bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others."

In the paper he recalls a worker telling [a research team member], "Even if we had the time to explain, and they had the time to listen, it wouldn't be as efficient as just solving the problem now and then discussing it later. Because there is so much variation, we need to fix first, explain later."

To be fair to Professor Bernstein, he points out that the workers did share ideas with their supervisors after testing and perfecting them:

"There was a pride in ownership leading to the desire to share," Bernstein says. "And so they did. But only after they had data to support their new approach."

But what's troubling about this study is the assumption that there's an innate and immutable human tendency inside any organization to hide work so as "not to bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things." Now I don't know anything about the organizational culture in this global contract manufacturer in China, but I do know that Toyota, Autoliv, Wiremold, Lantech, and hundreds of other companies have demonstrated that you can create a culture that prizes, rewards, and elevates the habit of sharing information and improving processes through constant application of the PDSA cycle.

Professor Bernstein goes on to explain that

On the manufacturing floor, the workers were trying to manage the attention of the managers. They knew that if they did something that looked weird, it would draw attention and, quite frankly, would disrupt their current work process. If they didn't look weird, then that wouldn't happen. And they knew that just for the sake of getting the production numbers, sometimes it would be good to attract attention and sometimes it wouldn't.

Professor Bernstein's research was particularly irritating to me because I'm in the middle of reading Jon Miller's excellent book, Creating a Kaizen Culture. Jon argues convincingly that the highest performing organizations avoid the implicit assumption that managers and employees are on different teams (at best) and antagonistic (at worst).

A culture that has as its raison d'etre human improvement  doesn't need to shield workers from managers. When supervisors' and managers' primary function is the nurturing and development of front-line employees, there's no need to hide "for the sake of getting the production numbers."


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Visual management is in the details

Creative visual management can be found in any environment -- and it doesn't cost anything. At the end of dinner last night, the waitress brought the check and carefully aligned it with the edge of the table. She said, "When you're ready to pay, just turn the check sideways [so that it's perpendicular to the table edge] and I'll know to pick it up.

My dinner companion and I could continue talking without the waitress hovering over us, and she could spend more time attending to other customers.

Simple. Elegant. The best visual management (and the best tools, in general) always are.

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Little's Law, redux

In reference to my April newsletter, about the perils of a multi-tasking environment that forces teams to constantly switch activities among multiple projects, a client wrote:

I am a little surprised you didn’t refer to Pull and WIP control more overtly as part of the solution. I know it is production language, but it should work in admin and is a great way to match input/output rates and to keep resources dedicated until a job is done. Also the queues can then be used as indicators of true capacity (vs coordination) opportunities.

I anchored my argument against this kind of multitasking in Little's Law, which demonstrates that the more items in a queue of work (particularly manufacturing or service), the longer the cycle time for that work becomes.

My client is exactly right, however. A push system, where work is foisted upon a department from the outside, by its very nature will lead to overloading a system and exploding lead times. A pull system, where work is taken from a pile of projects by the people doing the work when they're ready for it, ensures that the department matches inputs and outputs for maximum efficiency.

Interestingly, this approach is rare. There's a tendency in the office environment to treat "production" capacity as infinite. Partly this tendency is due to people's willingness to work late into the night or on weekends. Partly this tendency is due to the difficulty of calculating how much time a particular project will take. Inherent in knowledge work is the inability to take a project to completion in a smooth, uninterrupted flow.

Because there are so many interruptions, and because these projects tend to be multi-stage affairs, there's a powerful argument to use more visual management tools and lean/agile development methods. Both will help clarify and make workloads visible, and help to better match capacity to business opportunities. And that results in shorter lead times, happier customers, and less-stressed employees.



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We are creatures of our environment

Stories about rotting garbage and table scraps aren't the place you'd expect to find powerful lessons about running your business. However, a story the other day on NPR about food waste in restaurants (about 10% of the food a restaurant buys ends up in landfills) provided this interesting insight:

The hardest part for many restaurants may just be getting the workers to become aware of how much edible food they waste every day. A few years ago, when [Chris Moyer of theNational Restaurant Association] was managing a big chain restaurant, he wanted to show his cooks there were plenty of opportunities to reduce waste. So he took away the garbage can.

"You'd be surprised, once you take away the garbage cans, if people have to ask permission to throw something away how little you throw away," says Moyer. "It was really quite amazing."

Let's put aside for the moment the issue of whether taking away garbage cans demonstrates respect for people. (It doesn't.) What's striking is how behavior changes in response to environmental conditions. If taking away garbage cans results in less food thrown away, what might happen if you took away the comfy chairs in the conference room? Or required that all meetings are stand-up? Most likely they'd end on time or early. (And, in fact, there are plenty of stories about companies doing precisely that.)

What if you rearranged where people sat in an office? I've been working with a company that complains about poor communication and coordination between the various groups involved in the product development process: the R&D and manufacturing engineers get last-minute changes dropped on them by the product marketing team. Perhaps not coincidentally, the marketing team sits at the other end of the building from the engineers. While it wouldn't be a panacea, I guarantee that if they mixed the marketing and engineering teams together, communication would be better.

Many years ago when it was still in start-up mode and cash was tight, the employees at Giro bike helmets asked Jim Gentes, the founder, to install a shower in the office. Gentes was afraid that he'd pay $5000 to put in a shower, and people wouldn't use it that much. So he came up with a simple solution: he put a piece of paper next to the shower showing the cost, and told employees to put their names down when they showered, and calculate the average cost of each shower. In other words, the average cost of the first shower was $5000; the average after two showers was $2500; after three showers, $1667; etc. By making the cost and the usage of the shower, Gentes ensured that people didn't take it for granted, and probably increased the usage, as people were motivated to drive the average cost down.

Think about it: what environmental changes can you make to improve the coordination, collaboration, and effectiveness of your teams?

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Disney's Electronic Whip

What's the purpose of visual management boards? Is it to help identify problems and improve processes? Or is it to instill fear and insecurity?

Steve Lopez at the LA Times shows how Disney hotels use visual controls for the latter pupose:

In the basements of the Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels in Anaheim, big flat-screen monitors hang from the walls in rooms where uniformed crews do laundry. The monitors are like scoreboards, with employees' work speeds compared to one another. Workers are listed by name, so their colleagues can see who is quickest at loading pillow cases, sheets and other items into a laundry machine.

Isabel Barrera, a Disneyland Hotel laundry worker for eight years, began calling the new system the "electronic whip" when it was installed last year. The name has stuck.

Employees in the Anaheim hotels are required to key in their ID when they arrive, and from then on, their production speed is displayed for all to see. For instance, the monitor might show that S. Lopez is working at an efficiency rate of 37% of expected production. The screen displays the names of several coworkers at once, with "efficiency" numbers in green for those near or above 100% of the expected pace, and red numbers for those who aren't as fast.

Measuring productivity among hotel workers is apparently common in the hotel industry: how fast are rooms being cleaned, how quickly is laundry turned around, etc. That's not so different from the measurements that many organizations take. However, there's a huge difference when the measurements are used to identify problems in a system or process in order to aid in improvement activities, and when they're being used to "motivate" workers.

"I was nervous," said Barerra, who makes $11.94 an hour, "and felt that I was being controlled even more."

According to Barrera, the whip has led to a sort of competition among workers, some of whom have tried to race to the head of the pack. But that has led to dissension and made other employees worry that a reasonable pace won't be enough to keep the boss happy. Barrera and Beatriz Topete, an official with Unite Here Local 11, said employees have been known to skip bathroom breaks out of fear that their production will fall and managers will demand an explanation. They say they felt bad for a pregnant employee who had trouble keeping up.

In Disney's case, this system is -- predictably -- doing the polar opposite of Dr. Deming's precept to drive out fear. With no control over the system, and no ability to make improvements, workers are forced into a helpless chase after some arbitrarily defined level of productivity. It's clear that no one knows how the targets were set and what levels will "keep the boss happy." To Deming's point, if the system in which people work accounts for 90-95% of performance, simply displaying people's production speed is less than helpful. It's toxic.

I'll qualify my blog post at this point to say that I don't know anything about the journalist who wrote this piece. Is he a muckraker? Is he biased? Did he truly investigate this situation by talking to management as well as workers? I don't know. However, I can say that the presence of fear and uncertainty is a strong indicator that, from a lean perspective, there's a problem at the Magic Kingdom.

More broadly, the misuse of these visual controls is a powerful demonstration that lean isn't about tools. Used properly, Disney's flat-screen monitors could be similar to an andon, alerting management to a problem in the system, or in employee skill development, or in process design. Used as a instrument of measurement for punitive purposes -- well, all you get is an electronic whip.



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.




The personal kanban: not just "vocabulary engineering."

Michel Baudin, who most assuredly has forgotten more about lean than I’ll ever know, wrote recently about the “personal kanban” and concluded that it was much ado about nothing on three counts. First, Baudin argued that it was essentially old wine in new bottles—the Scancard System of the 1980s did much the same thing. Second, its lack of portability makes it impractical to use in meetings or with a network. Finally, it only displays the current status of a project, rather than the whole history. (In a felicitous turn of phrase of which I’m really jealous, he also   called it “a feat of vocabulary engineering,” leveraging the buzz around an aspect of Toyota’s production system to repackage ideas that have little to do with it.) Having just written about value of a personal kanban in my forthcoming book (A Factory of One, available in mid-December), and having seen many individuals apply the concept successfully, I must respectfully disagree.

He’s absolutely right that for a long time now people have known they should limit their work in process. However, the unhappy fact is, they don’t—and it’s not just because supervisors insist on piling more and more projects onto hapless subordinates, like Egyptian slave masters in The 10 Commandments. In large part, people don’t limit their WIP because they have no idea themselves of how much work they have on their plates. Particularly in a modern office, most of their work is invisible, residing in electronic files, email messages, and all manner of stray bits and bytes on their computers. As a result, people are terrible managers of their own workload, and they reflexively accept new responsibilities and commitments when they’d be far better off saying “no.” The personal kanban, like the Scancard before it, does a wonderful job of making that work visible and helping people better manage their work.

Baudin’s comment about the lack of portability is valid, but in my opinion hardly disqualifies the personal kanban as a valuable tool. Much of a knowledge worker’s time is spent in the office, not a conference room, and is therefore accessible to him or her when needed. And besides, if the kanban in the office encourages people to have their meetings where the work is done, and not in the conference room, so much the better.

His final point about the kanban only displaying the current state of a project can be easily fixed. Beneath the “Backlog/Doing/Done” section, you can map out the key steps of the entire project/value stream, as you can see in the photo below.










This section provides the context for each task—both the history and the future requirements, the latter of which the Ybry Chart can’t do.

The last thing I’ll say in defense of the “personal kanban” is this: the purpose of a kanban in a factory setting is to control WIP and pull resources forward at the right time. The personal kanban does precisely that—except that the resources in this case are the person’s time and attention. If the whiteboard and sticky note combination of the personal kanban succeeds in this goal, then I think it deserves the name kanban.

So, Michel, while the personal kanban may not be a breakthrough on the order of, say, Copernicus’s insights on planetary alignment, I maintain that it’s a valuable, capable, and flexible tool to improve knowledge worker production.



How Broken Promises Can Benefit Your Company

My latest article for Amex OPEN Forum just posted. Here's how it begins: The world is rife with maxims that remind us to never to break our commitments: “Be a man of your word,” “Your word is your bond,” “Under-promise and over-deliver.” But while this might be good advice when dealing with your spouse (or the IRS), it’s a bad idea when it comes to your business. Broken promises provide powerful opportunities to identify and eliminate problems that keep your business from improving and growing.

Read the entire article on the Amex OPEN Forum website here.


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5S in Three Bullets

This is not 5SA few months ago, Mark Rosenthal boiled 5S down to three key points:

  • You have everything you need.
  • You need everything you have.
  • You can see everything clearly belongs where it is.

There's a lot to be said for the simplicity of this description. But how does it apply to knowledge workers?

Too often, 5S is transplanted -- not translated -- from the factory floor to the office cube without considering its purpose. That leads to ridiculous situations such as the one at Kyocera America, where there's an internal 5S cop yelling at people for putting sweaters on the backs of their chairs.

Knowledge workers traffic in information, not materials. So for a knowledge worker, Mark's points can be rewritten as:

  • You have all the information you need.
  • You need all the information you have.
  • You can see  that all the information clearly belongs where it is.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter where you hang your sweater, put your stapler, or keep the picture of your dog. None of those affect your ability to access the information you need to do your job. As long as your electronic and paper filing systems allow you to quickly and easily retrieve information, you're okay.

That doesn't obviate the need for visible management tools. Particularly because the information you receive is increasingly electronic, it's difficult to assess at a glance what you have. When you look at a product development spec package, a legal brief, or a pile of papers, can you easily tell whether you have all the required information? If not, some sort of signaling system -- a kanban, checklist, post-it notes, etc. -- is needed.

Mark goes on to say:

As the work is done, the moment someone discovers something else is needed, THAT is the time to deal with the issue. Ask, “Is this something we should need in the normal course of the work?”

If so, then you learned something that you didn’t know or didn’t remember when you first organized the area. Add that item, find a place for it, and establish a visual control. Right now.

If not, then “Why did we need it this time?” What broke the normal pattern of work? This is where 5S breaks down – when we don’t discriminate between something that is needed in the normal course of work, and something that is needed as an exception.

This process is just as important for the knowledge worker. When we don't ask these questions, we end up buried in piles of papers, in stray files on the computer desktop, and random emails that have been ambiguously flagged for "followup," even though the flags don't really tell us anything about the process. Once all those bits of information start to accumulate, we no longer have just what we need and need just what we have. That leads to errors, rework, waiting, and all kinds of wasted effort.

Think about it.

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The Iceberg that Sinks Performance

I'm back. The last few weeks have been hectic for me: I finished the manuscript for my book, A Factory of One, and submitted it to Productivity Press, who will be publishing it in November or December this year. Many thanks to all of you in the lean community who provided feedback, comments, stories, and challenges to my thinking along the way.

I've also spent a long week clarifying my thinking about how lean concepts and tools tie into time management and individual performance. In the spirit of visual management, I thought that drawing this relationship would be helpful. This is what I came up with:

Obviously, I'm no Rembrandt. But I think this iceberg does a pretty good job of expressing the actual situation that I've seen over the past few years when people complain that they're overwhelmed, or that their group needs time management training, or that they simply don't have enough time to do everything. Their complaint -- the visible symptom, the part of the iceberg above the water -- is not the problem at all. It's a symptom. The root cause -- the real problem -- lies below the waterline. And while it's invisible, it can -- and will -- sink the ship.

Time management "problems" are really just manifestations of dysfunction in one or more of the following areas: strategy; priorities; internal systems and processes; corporate cultural expectations; or individual skills. And this is why very often time management programs fail to improve the lives of the people who so diligently construct lists, who carefully discriminate between urgent and important, who pursue inbox zero, who never check email in the morning, etc. All those approaches -- as valuable as they are -- only address the problems in individual skills. They ignore the systemic issues that undermine individual performance. You can try not checking email till 11am, but if your boss reams you out for missing an urgent email she sent at 8:15am, you're probably not going to stick with that 11am plan for very long.

Carrying the iceberg metaphor a bit further, even if you do lop off the top -- even if you address the symptoms by adding staff, or bolstering a person's individual skills, the problem will just rise to the surface again. At some point you'll have to get to the root causes, or you'll end up sinking the ship.



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.



Lean and the power of communication.

I attended the LEI's Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit last week in Orlando and was impressed by all the attendees' dedication to improvement. The problems with our healthcare system -- and the healthcare insurance system -- are legion, but seeing the accomplishments of this group gives me some measure of hope that things might actually get better. Amidst all the value stream maps and photos of 5S initiatives, one thing that really hit me was how communication lies at the heart of so much of lean. From kanbans to value stream maps, from daily huddles to managerial standard work from 5S to A3s, I kept seeing how clear, concise, and consistent communication eliminates waste, creates value, and focuses activity and attention on what's important. When you think about it, a kanban is a form of communication that tells someone that something needs to be done at a certain time. Value stream maps are a kind of visual communication that helps reduce misunderstandings. Daily huddles are clearly about communication of problems (and solutions), while manager standard work is a way to routinize and clarify communication up, down, and across an organization. 5S is a way to help communicate abnormalities in a process or place. A3s are an elegant and concise method of communicating just about anything. And you can't go to any lean plant or office without seeing visual management boards that essentially are just forms of communication.

So this got me thinking about the waste of time, effort, and energy that goes into what passes for communication in most organizations. You know -- confusing emails with no clear purpose. Voice mails that don't answer questions, but instead just ask you to "call me back" (and race through the telephone number at the end). Soul-sucking meetings that serve no point except the aggrandizement of the organizer's ego. Proposals and reports that deforest half of Brazil without telling a coherent story. That's a colossal amount of waste.

By no means am I diminishing the importance of the lean tools that are so often discussed. But it does make you wonder: what would happen if we spent even just a little time on improving the quality of the communication within and between organizational silos?


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Four tools for making work visible.

In general, I'm not a big fan of fancy time management hardware or software. As the saying goes, automating a broken process gets you a faster (and more expensive) broken process. Far better to use a simple system to fix the process and then automate as necessary. (Kevin Meyer is the chief apostle of this approach, with his pizza and whiteboard replacement for an ERP system.) Even buying special pre-packaged and printed day planners fits into this category, since you get locked into someone else's proprietary and inflexible system. Having said that, there are some interesting websites that can give you greater visibility in how you're spending your time. They won't actually help you, you know, do anything important, but by making your actions visible, they can help spur behavioral change.

The Wall Street Journal covered four of the services (Slife, RescueTime Pro, ManicTime, and Klok) last week. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, but will no doubt be improved over time. I won't bother reviewing them as you can read the WSJ article for free here.

I'm good with a watch, a piece of paper, and some discipline. However, if new tools will help you get started down this road, by all means read the article and check them out. The important issue, I think, is not so much what tool you use, but rather that you're committed to making the invisible -- i.e., where and how you spend your time and attention -- visible. Once you've done that, you can start to analyze the current state and implement countermeasures to improve it. As the WSJ authors wrote,

All in all, the services really helped us get a handle on how we spend our work time. And having a written account of where our minutes went pushed us to modify our work habits—and get more done.

These tools aren't panaceas. But it might get you started in living the lean principles that you're trying to drive through the organization.

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