Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: We know the problem all too well at Wesley Seminary: how do we track dozens of courses running concurrently? Though software provides varied options, this article reminds us that simple, movable visual objects often carry the most weight in tactical planning. My colleagues in the IWU School of Theology & Ministry do this effectively (though on a smaller scale) with cards representing courses and instructors. Perhaps it’s time to eschew the online planner for the art of planning visibility.
by Daniel Markovitz, Harvard Business Review, 9/24/15.
Walk into any fitness center, health club, or gym in the country and you’ll see yourself. Or rather, reflections of yourself. It doesn’t matter whether the gym is one step up from a cave or a posh Park Avenue fitness emporium — you’ll see mirrors, and lots of them. The mirrors aren’t a manifestation of the customers’ narcissism. They’re actually there for an important purpose: to help people do their exercises properly. The mirrors act as a real-time check on your activity, enabling you to immediately adjust to ensure your safety and the quality of your exercise.
Visual feedback goes further than simply mirrors, of course. Today’s high-tech fitness trackers — Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike FuelBand, and the Apple Watch, not to mention the many sophisticated cycling and running computers — provide quantitative measurements on a stunning array of factors. No matter what your fitness activity, you can get visible, quantifiable feedback on what you’re doing and how well you’re doing it while you’re doing it.
By contrast, consider the typical office environment. What do you see? Mostly, it’s people hunched over their computers, typing furiously. Or people hunched over their iPhones in meetings, typing furiously (but covertly). How can those workers determine whether or not they’re doing their work properly? Equally important, how can you, as a leader, determine whether or not they’re doing their jobs properly? And how can you know whether or not the overarching process — preparing marketing materials, or opening up new accounts, or onboarding a new employee — is functioning as well as it could?
This invisibility creates real problems. At best, it means that tracking the work requires low-value weekly status update meetings. At worst, it means that there’s no way to make improvements until after the monthly or quarterly business results are in. That delay can cause serious damage. To return to the fitness metaphor, there’s no way to make improvements to the process until after you’ve blown out your knee, or overtrained and died at mile 11 in your big marathon. By the time you know that a process isn’t working very well, it’s too late.
Making progress visible
A San Francisco-based boutique patent firm specializing in the medical device, clean technology, and software industries uses a simple — but very clever — visual system to manage the flow of work among their six attorneys. Here’s the corkboard that’s in full view in their open office: