Visualizing Work to Improve Performance

In my most recent Management Monthly newsletter, I shared a Harvard Business Review article about visualizing work.

Soon to be a kanban board. Current decoration courtesy of my soon to be 6 year old.

I am a big fan of visualizing work. I currently use Trello for my work, but I am really looking forward to having a physical kanban board again soon. We added an office on to our house, and my sole design request was a large magnetic whiteboard that I can use for a kanban board. It ended up on the office side of barn door entrance to the office. Once we finish painting and moving furniture into our office, I’ll load it up with my work.

I have written before about kanban and other methods for mapping projects. I have successfully used a kanban board to help someone who tends to get distracted (that would be me), and also to help a team that was struggling with too many projects and not enough prioritization. I have always suspected that a visual project board would help resolve problems with chronically underperforming team members- i.e., people who are slacking. I have never had the chance to test this idea out directly, though, because I’ve been fortunate to never have that particular management problem in my teams. I’ve had to handle performance problems, but they’ve never been due to slacking.

I have worked with someone who was obviously slacking, though, and my experience matches the general opinion that it is a real motivation killer for the rest of the team.  A manager who has a slacker on the team really needs to respond- but a direct confrontation is not always the best option.

I think visualizing work can help. A lot of slackers get away with underperforming because no one can really prove that they aren’t getting enough work done. Visualizing your process should help with this, because now the flow of work is out in the open, and it will be impossible to miss the work backing up at the slacker’s step.

That’s nice in theory, but does it work in practice? I don’t have a rigorous study on this, but I do have an interesting anecdote. Someone who was dealing with this problem on their team asked me for advice, and I suggested trying Trello or a kanban board. They did, and recently reported back that it has definitely helped with the problem. The slacker is picking up more work, and the rest of the team is less resentful. And all of this happened with a distributed team, and no need for a potentially unpleasant confrontation with the slacker.

I’d love to hear more anecdotes about whether visualization of the work helped (or hurt) in your workplace- leave them in the comments or email me at melanie at beyondmanaging dot com.


Want to know more about kanban and other project management techniques? I discuss them in my Better Projects Through Better Planning class, which is enrolling now.

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