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Joshua Zloof's Blog

Visual Management Tools for Product Management

Joshua Zloof

Since moving back to Silicon Valley circa 2011, I've noticed an extreme reluctance to put things on paper.  In a mobile world with a remote workforce, it's often hard make a case to print out documents.  Furthermore, with a myriad of cloud based collaboration tools (Google docs, Asana, Jira, etc) it feels like there is no need for the physical world.   This could not be more wrong.

What is Visual Management?

Visual Management tools are one component in a Lean Management toolkit that can be used in a large number of industries. You can find examples of this in everything from a factory floor, a regional sales office, supermarkets, call centers, even consumer goods. Some visual management tools are blatantly obvious: large performance boards that list metrics and KPIs.  Others are more subtle: the blue bristles on your toothbrush that turn white with use

Visual Management & Product Management

While not always obvious, visual management has it's place in product management & software development.  In this post as well as in subsequent posts, I'll highlight a few different visual management tools I've come up with, go through some of the key characteristics, and explain the benefits.

Wall size mock-ups

On a recent product release, I experimented with blowing up mock-ups for a particular feature and putting it on a wall.  As we complete parts of the feature, we cross off components according to the following rules:

Green - Complete and matches the spec

Orange - Complete and doesn't match the spec

Red - Not going to complete

Blank - Work-in-progress

Benefits of the tool

  1. Reduces communication burden - effective visual management makes the status obvious without any context - if used properly, the picture says it all, no need to communicate up or down.
  2. Achieves instant alignment - it's obvious what the goals, priorities, and gaps are.  All team members can see the image just by being present and can voice concerns.  There's no need to hold a meeting to review the plan - give everyone time back on their calendar.
  3. Catches errors - instead of being on the shoulders of a quality assurance team, everyone on the team is empowered to check their work. If a team member notices a mistake, he/she can engage on it immediately.

Key components

To get this right, you'll need a few things: 

  1. Large, central location - the tool needs to be visible and eye catching to attract proper focus
  2. Directions/ Legend - place a legend with instructions near the tool.  If something needs interpretation, make it obvious. Ask yourself if someone off the street would reach the same takeaways as you would by looking at the board
  3. Post-its for next steps/ actions - The board displays current status, but it cannot display the actions to attack the feature. Use post-it notes to call out next steps. When all the post-it notes are removed, you know you're done
  4. Training, Training, Training - If you want anyone else to go through the act of updating your mock-up, you must train them (even if it's obvious). The best way to train is to grab a participant and cross-out a field with him/her. Then ask him/her to help you the rest of the way

While this tool takes some up-front planning, the benefits are worth it.  Once you establish a cadence, you'll be able to remove lots of overhead in getting your feature shipped.

More to come...