Alan Jackson, April 2012, The Better Business Bureau Ltd.
Even small businesses operate many operational and administrative processes and have business “to-do” lists with tasks ranging from the mundane (e.g. order more stationery) to strategically important business development activities that are really full-blown projects (e.g. introduce new product, implement marketing campaign).
Efficient management of a business means sufficient monitoring of all these processes to keep them operating at peak efficiency. And the key to this is having at our finger tips accurate and timely management information that answers the following questions:
- How are we doing now?
- What progress have we made?
- What must we do next…
…under normal circumstances (everything is under control)?
…if the circumstances are abnormal (something is out of control)?
But to understand how well the work is being progressed, you first need to be able to “see” it. Visualizing the work enables you to better analyze, organize and then implement it effectively.
In manufacturing, process anomalies are generally easy to see, as they take the form of excessive piles of scrap, sub-components, partly finished goods and finished goods inventory. But in office processes, problems leading to excessive work in progress are not nearly so immediately apparent because work in progress and finished “goods” are intangible.
“Visual management” is a technique that can provide all the decision-support information needed to keep the work flowing smoothly, by making the queue of work and the work in progress visible, to everyone. This is the basis of a “pull” production system in which there are limits on the amount of work that can be in the queue, and explicit rules to follow when the limits are reached or exceeded. The beauty of visual management doesn’t necessarily rely on computerised monitoring systems to work.
We see many examples of highly effective visual management systems all around us. Traffic lights effectively manage the flow of traffic at a busy junction, keeping the cars flowing and avoiding collisions. The colour of the fuel hoses at a service station – black for diesel, green for unleaded petrol – helps to manage the flow of cars refuelling. The visual cues mean we do not need to drive past every pump to read the information in order to locate one dispensing the correct type of fuel. We can simply glance from a distance at and drive directly to the correct one.
Visualizing Work in Progress
Workers performing routine office processes tend to make their own decisions on what needs to be worked on next. These decisions are often made for their own convenience rather than what is best for the overall process, most often because they know no better. Visual management provides the missing information needed to get people working in concert, rather than as individuals, by enabling systematic work prioritization and scheduling, which is the basis of a proper “business system”. It‘s the difference between a group of musicians each playing for themselves and an orchestra playing under the guidance of a conductor.
A solution to making work queues visible may be as simple as updating a couple of numbers on a white board within the workplace every hour. It may be necessary to make a group or an individual’s “in-tray” visible, perhaps using an electronic “dashboard”.
The choice of visualization mechanism depends on two factors, proximity and information complexity. People working in close proximity with simple information requirements may use something as simple as organized and colour-coded in-trays or folders, as shown below.
||Each tray is an intra-day checking time (say 1 hr). Each folder has enough work for 1 person in 1 hr. Sufficient work is placed in each folder at the start of the shift. By comparing the tray’s status to the actual time, the Team Leader can see if the team is on track.
If people are working further way, but still in line of sight, white boards are excellent. If the information is too complex to represent easily on a board or there is no line of sight, then some form of computerised dashboards is the only feasible solution.
Providing Feedback Information
Short Duration Processes
Feedback and visibility of performance of repetitive, short-duration, transactional processes or sub-processes (up to a few hours duration) can be maintained on “Pitch Boards” by workers themselves. These simply display actual versus expected throughput. A typical format for such a “short interval control” board is shown left and below. It clearly displays the goals by the hour (i.e. the “pitch”), dictated by available capacity, and how well a person or team of people are doing in meeting the goals.
Note the importance of comments for any hour when the goal was not met. A periodic review of the board will help to identify recurring problems that must be addressed to assure performance in the future. Colours may be used to signify when variability is within a normal range or approaching a condition that requires some special intervention.
Complex, Longer Duration Processes
Processes that run over several days, weeks or even months, with numerous sub-processes, such as a marketing & sales pipeline or a HR maternity leave process, can be visualized and managed according to key milestones on a “Process Board” (Click here for examples from IT operations, development and sales). A simple example of a special offer publication and distribution process is shown below.
These Boards mostly conform to the general model: “to-do”, “in progress” and “done”. The “in progress” category is normally divided up into the different milestones that a job passes while it is “work in progress” (e.g. “design”, “build”, “test” for software development). Due dates are posted when the process starts. Green means on schedule, yellow means that the due date is in jeopardy, and red means that the date will be or has been missed.
Problems must be addressed in a timely fashion so an “escalation” process may be appropriate. The escalation process triggers others – possibly higher level management – to get involved and help to complete the follow-up action. Jobs under “remedial action” should be included on the board.
Processes that involve a job of work being passed between a number of workers, each one performing a short, discrete task that adds specific value, may be visualised by either of the mechanisms outlined above. The shorter the duration of the process, the more likely that the best solution is a pitch board.
There are two basic types of tool for visualising processes. Workflow tools, which are primarily for orchestrating transactional processes, also provide a “dashboard” view of work in progress (described in a previous article). Kanban Process Boards simulate process whiteboards, as shown above (Kanban is a system for visualizing work and helping it to flow, so reducing waste, and maximizing customer value). Although a relatively informal mechanism, Kanban Process Boards can be highly effective. Unlike a workflow tool that automatically moves tasks to a downstream worker, a Kanban Process Board relies on users moving electronic “sticky notes” on a virtual whiteboard as each milestone is reached. Dashboard facilities provide a summary view of work in progress.
Key Functionality of an Electronic Kanban Process Board
A good Kanban tool typically offers the following functionality:
- Flexible, simple and intuitive workflow editor for defining and building a visual model of any process board including:
- A “drag and drop”, Web browser user interface that resemble a real whiteboard
- Process milestone column and sub-column definition
- Horizontal “swim lanes” for different types of work that follow the same process
- Work in progress limits
- Job completion archive
- Search and filtering of jobs
- Customizable Kanban card templates, including colours to denote different job types, fields such as free text, dropdown with options, date picker, etc.
- Definition of tasks with comprehensive descriptive properties, such as task size, links, comments, due dates and priorities
- Task history
- Real-time updates with e-mail notification
- User and group account management with account access privileges and sharing of folders, boards and online documents with team members
- To-do list creation
- Assignment of tasks to team members
- Dashboard presentation of metrics, including cumulative flow diagrams to identify bottlenecks, lead and cycle time reports, breakdown charts for a quick insight into project status, statistical process control charts to reveal to variability
- Create, edit and share documents
- Import/export of data
- An Application Programmers Interface for integration with external applications
Value for Money
Kanban Process Boards are surprisingly inexpensive and represent tremendous value for money. It costs typically just a few pounds a month for one that runs “in the Cloud” (i.e. over the Internet), which means there is no installed software or local servers to maintain. The cost benefit and ROI can be enormous. Click here for a list of 15 Kanban tools. Kanbanize.com provides theirs free of charge, so what better place to start?
“Visual management” is an effective, real-time approach to managing on-going support and operational processes, and project “to-do” lists. With a visual decision support system in place, anyone can tell at a glance how a process or project is running and what actions should be taken to keep things operating smoothly. Visual management helps to take monitoring out of the realms of individual experience, “gut feeling”, tacit knowledge and pure chance, and puts decision-making into the hands of the team.
Alan Jackson is a business productivity architect operating in the UK Midlands region (www.bureau4betterbusiness.co.uk). Follow me on Twitter or email me at email@example.com. Feel free to leave comments or subscribe for more small business productivity insights.