Sunday, May 17, 2015

Boards: Paper vs. Digital – when, how and why

There are all kinds of boards around – Scrum Boards, Task Boards, Personal Kanban Boards, Story Boards, Portfolio Boards, Kanban Boards etc. – and all of them can come in different flavors. Two of the most distinctive flavors are “physical“ and “digital” and the difference is huge!

Even though the names differ, all the boards are in some way descendants of the kanban boards used in manufacturing, notably at Toyota.

(Of course there is a huge difference between kanban systems in manufacturing and virtual Kanban systems, therefor in Kanban the kanban is not the kanban, but that is another story)

Why use a board at all?

The first rule of Kanban is not ”You do not talk about it”.
Instead it is “Make it visible” or, to quote the correct words “Visualize the workflow” – and that is what a board is good at. In my early days with agile we called all kinds of boards “information radiators.” That term also referred to burndown charts, and burnup charts, and earned value visualizations, and defect maps, etc. – whatever was helpful, but never all of them at the same time.
The point is: information should be radiated. Made visible to everyone. And it should be the relevant information at the point where it is relevant.


Okay, so that is one part of it. But is there anything else, besides visibility?
Yes there is – such boards can also be a great way to communicate!
When they are located at places where everyone on the team notices when somebody else updates the board a lot of information is conveyed implicitly. Not to mention that the boards can serve as a culmination point for standup meetings and as a tangible way to discuss the current state of flow.

Create bite size chunks

Even if there are no WIP-Limits on the board, as long as they are physical there also is a physical limit on what can be put on the board. Just realizing – for example – that you can't put any more cards in “quality assurance” without calling some brick-layers to remodel the rooms can persuade teams to shift their work-focus.

Model your process

In Kanban for knowledge workers (the one with the capital K) the board also is a physical representation of the actual process – including process policies like WIP-Limits or cadences and such.

Electronic boards make change harder

No, of course not – at least as long as you're the administrator of that electronic board. And you don't have too many reports that rely on the boards layout. And nobody shares basic definitions like stations (a.k.a. columns or status-values) or classes of service. And you have a way to remove stations that are not empty. And you can easily inform everybody about the new process policies that go with the new board layout.
As long as all of these preconditions are met, electronic boards don’t make change harder. But as soon as you introduce central administration, create elaborate dependencies, share basic assets etc. change becomes a lot harder.
After all agile software development was meant to be adaptable and one of the most important parts is that there are retrospectives (or operations-reviews). But what good are those retrospectives if it is not possible to easily (!) adjust the process accordingly?
Where is the empowerment of the team if some tool-administrator hast to edit status values, so that the so-called self-organizing team can get their new buffer column (or something like that) on the board?

Electronic boards reduce visibility

There used to be a saying "DOORS - where requirements go to die!". Lately DOORS in this quip has been replaced by the names of more modern tools, but still there is a bit of truth in that saying.
Requirements that are stacking up in a tool (usually) don't make you feel uncomfortable. Unlike walls, tools have almost no limitations and the difference between, lets say, 350 and 850 un-reviewed requirements is quite easy to miss.

It’s about learning!

One of the great effects that can be experienced by going through the pain of really modeling the actual work we do is that we learn a lot about our processes. And adjusting the visualization over and over again is what reflects this learning. We might start with a five station (column) board and end up with a five station board. But if our board really reflects the learning it will probably have experienced times with a lot more columns in between.

(Try to) always start physical

And since everyone can break the rules on a physical board (hang a card sideways to indicate an improvised class of service, write a new rule, suggest a new cadence etc.) which is immediately visible to everybody who comes along to interact with the board, physical boards facilitate the willingness to experiment. And there is a much smaller risk to break anything (which is just not the same with electronic boards) which also contributes to a more relaxed stance to experimentation.

So – there are some good reasons to use an electronic board and even if you do use a physical board you still have to find a way to process the data electronically. But the power of a physical board, especially due to its limitations should never be underestimated.

Until next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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