Visual Controls

A visual control is a lean tool that has three primary purposes:

  • It shows when there is some abnormality in the process including blockages, people being overcapacity, dates at risk, and more
  • It provides an explicit workflow that the team is using
  • It provides management a view as to how work is flowing

A visual control can take many forms. Simple Kanban boards and complex product management systems are examples of visual controls.

In software development, there are two predominant levels of visual controls. One is at the team level, the other creates visibility across the technology group. Common team level visual controls are Scrum and Kanban boards. The following figure shows a technology wide visual control.

This is a picture from Net Objectives Planning Board Builder. Click on figure for more information

This visual control highlights three significant types of information:

  • Milestones or events to be aware of (either a significant release or an event to prepare for such as a conference)
  • MBIs being ready to be released. Depending upon the organization, MBIs might be released when ready or grouped into releases.  If the latter is the case then these releases should be marked in the Milestones/Events row if the release is organization wide or in the row corresponding to the team doing the release
  • Dependencies any PBIs have with each other.

Consider releases, MBIs being ready, and dependencies as agreements about having them ready by the specified date. Making and keeping these agreements is one way of changing the culture of collaboration in an organization.

Visual controls across the enterprise

Although we mentioned the preponderance of team and technology wide visual controls, it is possible to have them across the entire organization.  Each control will have a different level of granularity and purpose.

Figure 2: Visual controls across the enterprise.

The above is just an example. Larger organizations will have more and smaller organizations less. Each control has a different purpose:

Potential Business & Systems Capabilities. This holds potential work, often in the form of initiatives.

MBIs. This board starts with MBIs that are not well-defined and ends with MBIs that are ready to be pulled.

Identify Dependencies / Architecture Review.  This board is sometimes integrated with the MBI board preceding it.  It is only required as a separate board if the MBI is going to be split up along the development group lines.

Team boards.  These are the teams’ Scrum or Kanban or Team-Agility boards.

System Integration and QA.  This board is only needed if integration and QA is done separately from the teams.

Deployment and Ops.  This board contains work that has been completed but not deployed.

Changing culture with visual controls

The following is a paraphrase from Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions by David Mann.

Culture is important, but changing it directly is not possible. Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change.  Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture or a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way a company’s culture is a result of how people collaborate with each other. Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.

Focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and routines practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

Alignment is critical. This requires both what we’re all working towards and how we work together towards that.

Visual controls reinforce new ideas

The true difficulty in transformation is not in knowing what to do but in changing the way people think and the practices they use. Changing mindset is difficult. While the practices themselves are fairly simple, getting rid of ingrained habits is not. Visual controls can reinforce the new required behavior by providing information people need and reminding them of the agreements they have made.