Minimalist Lean – Avoiding the pitfalls of visual display boards

Anyone who has been involved with lean for any period of time has had experience with one of the most powerful and also one of the trickiest lean tools around. The visual display board.

blurry board

When designed and used correctly a visual display board is an asset to any team. They keep us on track, communicate important information and if done right become indispensable.

Visual displays are an attractive lure for companies starting on the lean journey. Companies well down the path always look amazing with colourful and well used visual display boards they swear by. The incorrect assumption that is easy to make is that these boards spring up overnight. In reality they are created over time with multiple iterations and even restarts.

It’s not uncommon to see visual display boards that are overloaded, out of date, hidden away in a corner or generally neglected. This is a two fold problem. In the first instance, the board is not adding value to the team that owns it and secondly, its creating a false impression that visual display boards are a waste of time.

In this post, I wanted to discuss some common pitfalls I have seen around visual display boards and provide a simple guide how to get these right so that you can reap the benefits this powerful tool can provide.

The overriding theme would be to avoid creating a board unless you really need one and that need should be really obvious to everyone.

Content is critical

It’s well known in lean leadership circles that daily meetings are the cornerstone of a well run lean operation. These meetings will usually cover recent performance, look at important Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and generate actions for the next day/week etc.

These meetings are generally held around some kind of visual display system or board. This is great. Well run visual display boards are a huge benefit to daily meetings. The trap is in the content of the board itself. Avoid ‘pre populating’ a board with topics that you think are relevant or should be discussed. The need to create value in the process should drive the content of the board, not preconceptions on what ‘should’ be managed.

A good board will evolve out of a critical need to manage or improve a process. It may also serve to deliver important information to those that need it in an efficient way. For newer lean practitioners, I would avoid creating a board for daily meetings at first but just have a blank white board or similar and maybe a few post its. Alternatively, select the one critical KPI that your team lives and dies by and make that the key focus area. Over time, you will notice that specific topics come up regularly and create themselves a space on the board. As another option, start by asking the team what they need (not want) to see on the board. This gives a good indication of what the people doing the value adding work find important.

What I have observed with boards that are unsuccessful or only partially successful is that the irrelevant sections get ignored over time and become like white elephants taking up wall real estate. Sections that are working well are always obvious because they will be up to date or covered with relevant information.

Keep it simple

Approach visual display from a minimalist view point. Find the simplest way to achieve the purpose of the board and avoid anything that requires serious administration to maintain. It’s easy to be lured into conversations like ‘If we made it a wheel you could turn it….”, “We can print multi coloured laminated cards”.. and my favourite “let’s make a spreadsheet”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my spreadsheets and there’s definitely a time and place for using tools to create meaningful information out of data. The pitfall is in beginning with these tools as a matter of course.

Buy in comes from an understanding of everyone in the team as to where the information comes from, how it is updated and why it’s important. If you can’t explain it to the newest member of your team in a few minutes it’s probably too complex.

If you’re not prepared to update it….don’t put it up there

Another pitfall is putting too much information or non value adding information on a visual display board. It’s tempting when creating a board to fall into the trap that more is better. In my experience it’s quite the opposite. Too much content can take away from the impact of the board and prevent its true purpose from shining through as clear as possible. Updating boards takes time and effort and once the board is created the information must be updated consistently to keep the board legitimate and relevant. If you’re finding yourself updating information and wondering if you really need to be doing this, you probably need to review the contents of that board.

There is nothing worse that a team board with an action plan where the actions are months old or the graphs are out of date. It sends a terrible leadership message and is demotivating to team members. My advice is never put anything on a visual display board that you aren’t prepared to commit to updating regularly, even daily or more than once a day depending on the nature of the board.

Separate ‘general information’ from ‘process management’

Wherever possible, try to keep process management information separate from general information. General information has a tendency to be variable in size and content, such as minutes and notices while process information is generally quite static. When combined on the same board the general information can start to encroach on the critical process information.

It doesn’t have to look perfect (sorry Marketing team).

It’s unlikely that any new visual display will be perfect first time so don’t go printing headings and drawing permanent lines just yet.

A board makes itself more permanent over time when you realise that no one has needed to adjust it for a while and it’s getting updated religiously. At no point does it need to look sensational to do its job. Neat, tidy, easily understood yes, but colour coordinated? Not really. To be fair to my Marketing buddies, those guys make stuff look good in their sleep so there’s nothing wrong with a bit of flair. The trouble comes when making the board look good is the point of the board.

Some of my favourite visual display boards still have their lines drawn in slightly smudged whiteboard marker but they perform their function just as well as other boards that look like a million bucks and also function brilliantly. The function comes first.

folding board2

 

Review the board regularly

Change is a constant in a lean organisation and its not uncommon for a board to outlive its purpose. This is OK. It can happen when a fundamental change is made to a process that either eliminates or reduces the need to manage certain KPIs. It can also happen when a team realises that an area that they thought they needed to manage with a board could be managed another way and this makes the board redundant. Keep it fluid. Don’t hang on to boards just because they used to be important.

In my experience, wall real estate for boards can be in as high a demand as floor space. By reviewing the board you can decide whether the space being used for a board might be better used for managing another area without using more space.

Regular review of boards will catch and eliminate non value adding information early and keep the board relevant and powerful. In a continuous improvement environment, constant small process changes makes it inevitable that boards will evolve and adapt with improvement.

—————–

Visual display boards on a whole are great. Don’t be discouraged from developing and using boards for your own processes. I have definitely created boards with my team that we would be lost without. I see the value that other team members get out of their own boards. What I do know that those boards are the result of multiple iterations, re-dos and discussion and are completely unique to the needs of each team. There is always more we can do to make these more powerful and relevant. You can be sure that a few months from now, they’ll be better than they are now and that’s how it should be.

Photos courtesy of Escea Ltd © 2018

 

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