If you build it - things will improve; turning visualisations to knowledge

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on September 16, 2014
Stats
My good friend and cowrite Joakim Sundén has taught a great deal about agile and lean... and a whole bunch of other things too. One thing that he said, early in my journey, that I didn't fully believe was:
It's always interesting to see the spontaneous discussions that appear around a kanban board (or other visualisation)... after the meeting
(Not the exact quote, because that would be much more well put and eloquent but still...).

So Joakim says that just by having a visualisation in place discussions arises. For example, after the daily standup around the board, people linger and discuss about the state of the board, about improvements or other work related things.

Have you experienced that?
I have. Often. Very often in fact. But not always. In this post I'll outline a few things that in my experience makes these conversations happen more frequently and some words on how to harvest this nugget of information making.

(The reference in the title is of course from Field of Dream with Kevin Costner)
My good friend and cowrite Joakim Sundén has taught a great deal about agile and lean... and a whole bunch of other things too. One thing that he said, early in my journey, that I didn't fully believe was:
It's always interesting to see the spontaneous discussions that appear around a kanban board (or other visualisation)... after the meeting
(Not the exact quote, because that would be much more well put and eloquent but still...).

So Joakim says that just by having a visualisation in place discussions arises. For example, after the daily standup around the board, people linger and discuss about the state of the board, about improvements or other work related things.

Have you experienced that?
I have. Often. Very often in fact. But not always. In this post I'll outline a few things that in my experience makes these conversations happen more frequently and some words on how to harvest this nugget of information making.

(The reference in the title is of course from Field of Dream with Kevin Costner)

Make it visual

The first thing is pretty obvious ... and not. If you want people to notice, understand and act on important information - make it visual. 
An excel list is much harder to digest and interpret than a board with cards in different columns. Or a diagram showing a visual representation of the data. 

This is one of the driving forces behind having boards that represents our work instead of keeping lists on paper. The spatial properties of moving things around radiates a lot more information quite simply. 

Consider the picture, from our book, next to this paragraph. Consider the amount of status, problems and information that this picture tells you. And we have not even written what the cards is about, they are just empty.
More about visualisations here.

Make it in your face

By Arthur, used under Creative commons
Another thing that I've found invaluable is to make the information as apparent as possible. Put it on the wall or leave the big whiteboard out all the time. Boards and other visualisations that is rolled out or where you have to start a projector or pull down a screen is soon forgotten and the information grows stale and unused. 

There's a lot of wall space that is not used in most offices that can be used to radiate information about our work instead. 

As always, this might not work for everyone, but I would advise you to do as good as you can. I've worked in offices where wall space is almost sacred and permit needs to be had from the office decoration department. But a wall of paper that we moved just a little to the side was quite alright. So we used one. For 3 years. It was out all the time, and we used the information on it in our daily work. I think I spent $20 on it. 

Make it big

By Tambako The Jaguar
used under Creative Commons
This is related to the point above but something that I've often found overlooked. Hence important information is overlooked and disregarded, which leads to less learning and less improvements. 

If you printout that really important, pretty formatted graph on a A4 and post it on the wall - people will ignore it. Pretty as it might be. 

However - hand draw the same diagram and make it less exact and pretty. But this time make it 2 x 2 meters on a white board - people will notices it and look at it. Ugly as it might be. 

I've never drawn a board or another team visualisation tool and then thought to myself: "Man, this is WAY to big." 

But I have thought the opposite... many many times.

Make it easy to change

This is crucial for the "live" feeling of the data. Make your visualisation in a way that is easy to change. And that feels like it's supposed to change. If it looks really slick and professional, printed on a 100x70 cardboard glossy paper - it it's not supposed to change. This is something that we put out in the lobby to show people. Not work with. 

This the reason I always prefer to do important visualisations on a whiteboard and draw them pretty sloppily. Not too sloppy, but not too good either. Make it look like anyone could have done it and that anyone could change it. Because then they might. 

Make it easy

If you want people to react (possible even change their behaviour) you first need them to understand. Trying to simplify and aggregate the information to only show the most important things has proven very useful for me, when it comes to get people to understand. 

Some visualisation contains a lot of information at once, such as a kanban board. This is great but can also cause a bit of a overwhelming feeling and then you immediately stand the risk of people loosing interest or understanding of the information you need them to act upon. 

The latest experience I have around this is a great example on what I mean. We created a diagram that we wanted all the staff to know about. It's about how many customers that we serve each day at this company and what our target is. 
However, to our surprise no one seemed to react on it. We were well below target and we explained that consequences (not making money - no sustainable company - no work for any of us), but still no reaction. 
Just on a whiff I added a new line on the diagram; the "every day below this we're losing money"-line. And renamed the target line to "here we can evolve our company from the profit we're making". And all of a sudden eyes where opened. Conversations were had. Questions about our measuring methods and data was asked. In short - people cared. Because they understood the information before them. 

Note that the visualisation was all of the above mentioned things; it's really big (1,5 x 1,5 meters), it's in their face every morning meeting and it's visual. But they didn't understand it. And hence didn't react.   

Ok - they get it. Now what?

If they "finally" get it, how can you support the ownership and further improvement efforts made from seeing the visualisation? Here's a few, very simple, tips that I've seen work a number of times.

Give them the pen

This is so hard to do. Especially for me. Quite frankly I think I get a +10 IQ boost when I hold a whiteboard pen... But it's also simple; Don't draw yourself! Give the pen to someone else. 

Something that you have drawn yourself feels like yours. There's an immediate feeling of ownership and responsibility that is quite different from the things you have "printed yourself, from Excel". So give the pen to someone in the team. Better yet - pass it around. 

For the diagram showed above we have someone in the staff to update the number of customers everyday. I just ask someone on the way in and tell them the number; "Pssst: Mrs Sinaga. Can you update the diagram today? 98. Thank you." and I give them the pen. 
I. Give. Them. The. .... Give them the .... p ... peeeeeen. There! 
I let it go. Phew!

Change it ... or let them change it

Another thing that is really important for the sense of ownership is to let them change and improve the visualisation. This is not for reporting to high managers really (although it can be use for that too... see this). 
This is a team tool that we use to work more effectively together. Let's change it so that we can do that. Let the tool evolve too. 

Make sure that you encourage to change it. If someone (anyone) asks just tell to go ahead. I always take photos of the changes the board goes through (even data) so we can always go back to the previous design if needed. 

If you really sneaky you can ask them; "Why do you want to do that change? What will be better?" to make them reflect before they act. But that's coaching ninja-level.

Walk away ... and stick around

This is the advice that the whole blog post started with. Once you have explained the current status of today, don't linger around to long. Just tell the status (remembering that this is not good or bad news - it's just news that we can act on to improve) and then walk to the back of the room. 

But stay there. 

Now... if you have made the visualisation visual (duh!), big, easy and the team has taken ownership of it... something magical will happen. People will start to cooperate towards a common improved future. 

Not every time, maybe not everyday but often enough that I dare promise you that this will happen. 

It seems like if you give awesome people a goal that they buy into they will do awesome things to try to reach that goal.
UPDATED: Here's a short movie taken ca 30 seconds after we ended the morning meeting 2014-11-04. Just listen to the conversations, explanations, questions and clarifications taking place. This is learning.

From you position in the back of the room you should be supporting, observing, taking notes and ask questions:
  • who's talking?
  • who is quiet?
  • what are being said?
  • do we dare to change the visualisation?
  • do we know WHY we change the visualisation?
  • for suggested actions ask things like:
    • Great idea - what is the smallest thing we can try to validate if that is helping us or not?
    • Awesome - how can we do more of that?
    • I like that - tell me again how we're reaching the goal by that action?


Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated