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Visual management: The comeback of the Kanban Wall

A simple 1950s analogue solution from the Toyota production floors gives a boost to modern office productivity.


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At first sight, maintaining a big wall, filled with post-it notes seems counterintuitive to a minimalism-driven office. Moreover, we live in a digital era, right? Those two concepts are not necessarily exclusive to one another.


The Kanban Wall, a visual management system, dating back from 1950’s Toyota manufacturing floor, is making a comeback with the rise of agile methodology, design thinking, scrum, among others. Project managers are one step ahead, but other knowledge workers follow suit quickly.


The Kanban Wall (from Japanese "kanban" means signpost or billboard) shows through post-it notes or similar what is planned, what is in progress and what is done, usually for a period of two weeks. The visual representation of plans and implementation is achieved by moving the post-its from the “to do” area to the “completed” one. The wall is visible by everyone in the office at all times.

In a 2015 article, Harvard Business Review makes an analogy of the Kanban Wall with the local fitness. The walls in the fitness are covered in mirrors. In every single moment you see what you are doing and what is your progress. The mirrors on the wall are an instant feedback – a management tool, rather the lack thereof, that many employees often rightfully complain about. And while in fitness you get constant feedback, in an office it is hardly possible to understand what one employee is working on, is he or she progressing, is there something that they need help with. Most of the time you see people staring at screens. Kanban Wall in an office is like the mirror in fitness.

Having a Kanban Wall in the office also relates to the “nudge” behavioural economics of the Nobel Prize winner Prof. Richard Thaler from Chicago Boot Business School The Kanban Wall is the stimulus, the nudge, for making the job done. And there is a visual reward mechanism of “showing off” with the job done by having your yellow post-it in the completed section of the wall.

Five cool benefits of visual management with Kanban Wall:

Accountability and team work:

The manager, as well as all the colleagues in the team, can see what you work on and how are you progressing. And can help you in case needed. In this respect Kanban can be a tool of redistributing resources to where they are needed most. It can be self-organised redistribution too ("I don't have much to do this week, I see colleague X is doing something exciting, why don't I help him and learn something new in the process")


Clarity on agreed goals and objectives:

The tasks are there in the open – on the post-it notes. They clearly show who does what and what the interdependence are. Not being clear on short term and long term goals is a common complaint in employee surveys. The Kanban Wall offers a solution to that.


Productivity:

Some research points to triple increase of productivity using this system. I would not take this at face value, but it certainly gives a boost.


Trust and integrity:

With Kanban wall everything is in the open, on the wall. Anyone can come and mess up with it. Trust is needed at all times between team members.


Sense of urgency:

The wall has a clear deadline which is usually two weeks for the tasks posted – the time the to-do's should be moved from the one side to the other. Pulling yourself together towards the approaching deadlines has never been so visual.

Five challenges of Kanban Wall:

Discipline and commitment:

The success of the Kanban wall is in the commitment of the team members that work with it. If they are not willing to contribute to the planning, it becomes difficult to keep track and cross reference. It is best if it becomes a habit – a new task is put on the post it the minute it comes up and moved to done the minute it is completed.


Free riders resistance:

This challenge is related to trust and integrity in the team. The wall can immediately make visible for everyone if the contribution of a team member is not relevant to the efforts and results.


Aesthetics play a role

In taste and colour there are no friends, the popular saying states. The team members will have different ideas about the aesthetics of the wall. Some might need colourful post-its and pens, others will prefer simplicity. It is OK to let the team members fill in their part of the wall the way they like it, as long as the general flow of information is kept the same for everyone – planned, in progress, done. It is a known fact that creativity boosts employee engagement.


Location, location, location.

Out of sight, out of mind – this is the warning message every Kanban Wall should come with. Best to be visible and easily accessible by everyone in the office if order to serve best its purpose.


Tool of monitoring and control

The words monitoring and control bring negative emotions, especially for self-organising knowledge workers. And some might consider the Kanban Wall as an old-fashioned tool of control. Frankly, it is, but with a different purpose. It is a transparent tool of control, but not for the manager, rather for the whole team.

Like every management tool, The Kanban Wall is not a panacea.

Implementation is key to reaping the benefits. And yes, it can also be digitalised – imagine a huge touchscreen wall, allowing you to generate virtual yellow post-its, which can be moved around the wall with the tip of a finger. One step at a time though. Try it offline before investing in the digital.


References:

https://hbr.org/2015/09/how-visual-systems-make-it-easier-to-track-knowledge-work

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7636/7dd1a3ad9d4e331ee46e0e22dc4037b73b38.pdf

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-41549753

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban

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