Systems Thinking – Visual Management

We’ve been talking about time boxing in the context of an Agile system. But there’s one critical system element that we haven’t touched on so far, and that’s visual management.

Inside of a time box system there are three groups that rely on feedback from visual management. There are the other stakeholders and downstream customers of product development: the executive team, the business team, sales and marketing, and even manufacturing. These groups need updates on the status and prognosis of projects. It gives them a look ahead for their own planning. Inside the time box there is the development team which uses visual feedback to track work completed and work yet to be done. They also use it to test or see how they’re progressing against expectations and delivery. The third group is the leadership team within the time box itself. They are responsible for the big picture. Things like capacity planning for upcoming time boxes, the amount of work in progress, the amount of work that is ready for development, etc. There are a number of things these groups use visual management to keep track of.

The exact details of any particular application of a time box, what is given to management, and how it’s designed are elements of detailed design and we won’t go into them here. But I’d like to share with you a story about the power of visual management and visual displays.

In the book “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows, she tells the story of an energy conservation exercise in the Netherlands. After WWII a number of housing developments were built. They were focused on efficiency and economy so returning servicemen would be able to find affordable independent housing. In the US we have Levittown, NY as an example. Donella’s story references an example in a suburb of Amsterdam. These houses were built very inexpensively. They were exact copies of each other. It was a very boring development where everything looks exactly the same, but it provided affordable homes for the veterans of WWII.

A number of years later the government of the Netherlands ran an austerity program. They asked citizens to reduce their energy usage. They tracked results and were hoping for about a 10% decrease in energy usage, but they got a wide range of results. In this one particular housing development there were two distinct classes. There was one group that was conserving on par with the rest of the nation, but there was a second group that was conserving at an extraordinary rate, much more than the rest of the development and nation. At first it was dismissed as more diligent citizens doing a better job. One persistent researcher dug in and tried to understand what was happening. The researcher found that in these exact copy houses there was one important difference. In two thirds of the houses the electric meter was in the basement and in the other third the meter was in the hallway just inside the front door. There was a very strong correlation to those that had the first floor meter and those with extraordinary conservation. Everyday when they came home they saw the electric meter spinning at the fast rate and were reminded of the conservation effort. That feedback, that persistent of information, caused them to be more diligent and conserve more energy. It was the persistent feedback of their purpose and commitment to the program that the electric meters provided. It lead to a more positive outcome. If you take that same visual feedback into product development you can get the same results if you, in fact, design and deploy visual management.

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