Kanban System Design


Another relevant set of ideas to visual management are those raised by Dan Pink when he talks about the surprising science of motivation. In his book Drive [5] he says that rather than the carrot and stick approach of extrinsic motivation, a better approach is intrinsic motivation, which consists of three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy, or the “desire to direct our own lives,” is achieved when team members can see what needs doing, understand the working agreements, and choose themselves what they should do. Mastery or “the urge to get better and better at something that matters” is achieved through being able to interact with the visualization to evolve and improve it. Purpose, or “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves,” is achieved when the persistence of the visualization makes it clear what the value of the work is and why it is being done.

A visualization consists of multiple pieces of data, and in the classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information [6], Edward Tufte introduces a set of principles for the effective display of data and it is insightful to review some of these ideas.

Tufte talks about a number of different types of graphical designs. Time series is probably the most common, where time is along the horizontal axis and another data type along the vertical. This is probably the least relevant design, because a system visualization is typically a snapshot of the current status. Similarly, a space time narrative, which tells a story in a spatial dimension over time, may not be the most obvious choice. It does raise the question of visualizing the narrative of the work over time though, which could be interesting. Maps also introduce some different ideas. What would a visualization look like if it showed the terrain of a project and where each piece of work was on that terrain? The most common form of visualization is probably a relational one, where the two axes show different types of information, such as scope and status.

Most of Tufte’s book is spent discussing ways of improving the way that data is presented; specifically, maximizing data ink, reducing chart junk, and improving data density. Data ink is the ink that actually represents data. While physical visualizations generally use more than just ink, the principle holds true for making sure that as far as possible, anything on a board should hold information. The corollary to this is that anything that isn’t data ink is chart junk. Grids, redundant data, or decorations and embellishments for aesthetics may create noise, which masks the real story. Finally, data density is the amount of data within the given space. The eye can take in a high precision of detail, so by maximizing the data ink and being clever with multi-functioning graphical elements, it is possible to visualize many dimensions in a small space.

A kanban system visualization is what Tufte would call a multi-variant display, with the variants typically being the usual project management details, but also including the concerns of any member of a system’s community of interest. As a starter, there are the popular “iron triangle” variants of scope, time, resource, and quality. Other common variants are things like priority, status, issues, risks, constraints, dependencies, and assumptions. More recently, teams have been talking in terms of variants such as capacity and demand, not to mention value and other economic aspects.

To visualize all these variants we can use a number of techniques. Properties such as size, color, format, location, and alignment can all create multi-functioning graphical elements to achieve a high data density, while for a physical visualization, material and texture can add further depth.

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