Visual Controls and Information Radiators

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Many Agile methods, such as Scrum, use what are known as “information radiators” to convey information about the status of development to the team and management. Alistair Cockburn says an information radiator “displays information in a place where people have easy access to it. With information radiators, the [viewer doesn’t] need to ask questions, the information simply hits them as they look at it.” (Cockburn 2001)

Common information radiators used in Scrum environments include

  • The product vision
  • The product backlog/release plan
  • The sprint backlog
  • Burn-down and burn-up charts
  • The impediment list

These are often organized on a team project board, a kind of “super” information radiator.

Information radiators are a specialized type of what Lean calls “visual controls.” In Lean environments, visual controls are used to make it easier to control an activity or process through a variety of visual signals or cues. The visual control:

  • Conveys its information visually
  • Mirrors (at least some part of) the process the team is using
  • Describes the state of the work-in-process
  • Is used to control the work-in-process
  • Can be viewed by anyone

We prefer the term “visual control” to “information radiator” because it communicates more effectively the attitude and behavior we want. “Information radiator” indicates a one-way direction of information from the team to the viewers, including management. It subtly reflects a belief that some Scrum practitioners (incorrectly) hold that the team needs to provide only information about results to management but does not need to provide management with information about how they work. Such an attitude hinders implementing Scrum at the enterprise level when such information is needed.

In Lean thinking, a “visual control” is more inclusive. In addition to communicating information to all viewers (so that they don’t have to ask for status reports, which are disruptive to generate), it also reflects the intent that management is a participant in the team’s processes. Visual control invites management to help detect early when there are problems impeding progress toward the team’s goals. That is exactly when the team needs to be interrupted—so that they can stop and adjust while it still matters. Visual control increases the likelihood that management’s “interruptions” actually add value to the process.

Other pages of interest

Using Visual Controls and Pull to Disseminate Information