Walk into any fitness center, health club, or gym in the country and you’ll see yourself. Or rather, reflections of yourself. It doesn’t matter whether the gym is one step up from a cave or a posh Park Avenue fitness emporium — you’ll see mirrors, and lots of them. The mirrors aren’t a manifestation of the customers’ narcissism. They’re actually there for an important purpose: to help people do their exercises properly. The mirrors act as a real-time check on your activity, enabling you to immediately adjust to ensure your safety and the quality of your exercise.
Visual feedback goes further than simply mirrors, of course. Today’s high-tech fitness trackers — Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike FuelBand, and the Apple Watch, not to mention the many sophisticated cycling and running computers — provide quantitative measurements on a stunning array of factors. No matter what your fitness activity, you can get visible, quantifiable
on what you’re doing and how well you’re doing it while you’re doing it.
This invisibility creates real problems. At best, it means that tracking the work requires low-value weekly status update meetings. At worst, it means that there’s no way to make improvements until after the monthly or quarterly business results are in. That delay can cause serious damage. To return to the fitness metaphor, there’s no way to make improvements to the process until after you’ve blown out your knee, or overtrained and died at mile 11 in your big marathon. By the time you know that a process isn’t working very well, it’s too late.
Making progress visible
A San Francisco-based boutique patent firm specializing in the medical device, clean technology, and software industries uses a simple — but very clever — visual system to manage the flow of work among their six attorneys. Here’s the corkboard that’s in full view in their open office:
Yellow box: Each tag in the yellow box belongs to one of the attorneys. These act as horizontal “swim lanes” for allocation of work.
Red box: The tags in the red box represent the client work that will be done during the next two-week period. Each tag breaks down the specific work for each attorney and each client.
Orange circles: The numbers in the orange circles (on the tags in the red box) display the estimated number of days each task will take. This keeps the lawyers from being overloaded during the upcoming two weeks, and ensures that they can meet delivery dates. When the work is complete, the attorneys note the actual number of days that it took.
Blue box: The three tags in the blue box form columns for tasks in critical stages: “awaiting comments”; “making revisions”; “filing soon.” As work is completed, the attorneys move the tags from the central area in the red box to the area below the blue box. This section of the board maintains the velocity of work — or, their production pace — by preventing client matter from falling out of sight due to other work.
Green box: The tags in the green box show tasks that need to be done beyond the upcoming two weeks. At the appropriate time, these tags are moved into the central section of the board in the red box.
The movement of tags around the board shows the progress of each person’s work — and more importantly, shows if someone is struggling and falling behind. For HR purposes, too, this visual system is beneficial. Even for the same type of task, the estimated number of days for completion differs depending how experienced the person handling the task is. This means that work can be allocated appropriately; that salaries can be set relative to the person’s abilities; and that those salaries can be adjusted when it’s clear that the attorney has become skillful enough to complete standard tasks in less time.
Notice how these visual controls function the same way the mirrors or cycling computers work for the athlete. They provide clear feedback on how the overall process is functioning, so that adjustments can be made to improve the performance of the system. Equally important, they give each attorney feedback on how he’s doing relative to expectations — is he completing his work within the forecasted time frame, or is he falling behind? At the end of each day, both the attorney and the managing partner can see where he stands, and respond accordingly.
Now, you can argue that it’s easy for this law firm to make its work visible, because the attorneys are doing nothing more than a fancy version of stamping out widgets: they do one type of work (patent law), which makes many of their tasks repetitive. That’s true. But it’s also true that your work — whatever it is — has plenty of repetitive elements. Product development? Writing product briefs, sourcing new fabrics, creating spec packages for the first sample — that’s all repetitive, too. Hiring and onboarding new employees? Background checks, drug tests, getting IT network access, benefits enrollment, etc. — all repetitive. Show me a job, and I’ll show you repetitive and predictable work. Not all of it, to be sure. But plenty of it, all of which can be made visible.
Improving the flow of information
Another organizational benefit of visual systems is the improvement in overall information flow. In most companies, information flow is hampered by sclerotic inboxes and flabby meetings. Valuable information gets trapped in inboxes filled with low-value, status update emails. Valuable time for analysis and decision is squeezed out of meetings in favor of tedious status update presentations that consume up to a third or even half of the meeting hour. (And let’s not even talk about the time spent writing those emails and preparing the PowerPoint slides.)
Visual management systems reduce the need for those updates because the important status issues and measurements are always on display, available at any time, for anyone who’s interested. It’s easier (and faster) for a physical trainer to show you what you’re doing wrong, rather than writing a doctoral dissertation on the biomechanics of the kinetic chain underlying a well-executed box jump. Similarly, visual tools reduce email and meeting burden by showing what’s happening in a process, rather telling what’s happening.
The ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value is a non-profit dedicated to helping hospitals improve their processes. To that end, they conduct training both at their offices in Appleton, Wisconsin, and also at the sites of their member hospitals. As you can imagine, coordinating those events is a laborious process — there are a lot of details that have to be addressed to make sure the events go smoothly. Below is the visual board they use to manage their “away games”— the training events at member hospitals.
The tasks for each event are listed down the left, while the name of each event (and date, if it’s been finalized) runs across the top. The date by which each task needs to be completed is listed in the appropriate square. Once the task is done, it’s replaced with a green dot. If there’s a problem, it gets a red dot.
This board isn’t any sort of technological or design breakthrough in visual tools — it’s not going to win a place in the Museum of Modern Art — but consider how elegantly it communicates the two critical pieces of information that anyone needs to know: when the work is supposed to be done, and whether or not it’s complete. In this regard, it’s similar to cloud-based apps like Trello or Lean Kit, as well as the project boards used by the agile software community. No need to review the status of these events during a meeting; no need to send out lengthy emails about where things stand. If there is a problem, it’s immediately visible, and people can spend their time and attention figuring out how to resolve it.
Any athlete, anyone pursuing fitness, and any coach relies upon visual systems to assess performance and chart a course for improvement.
Just like an athlete, a fit company finds ways to make its processes visible so that it can assess safety, velocity, and quality — and then align people around the commonly understood goals, to make the necessary adjustments, in real time, and move to a higher level of performance.