Disciplined Agile

Visual Controls and Information Radiators

Many Agile methods, such as Scrum, use what are known as “information radiators” to convey information about the status of development to the team and management. Alistair Cockburn says an information radiator “displays information in a place where people have easy access to it. With information radiators, the [viewer doesn’t] need to ask questions, the information simply hits them as they look at it.” (Cockburn 2001)

Lean provides a different mechanism for providing information – the visual control. Visual controls are a kind of information radiator that not only shows information, but includes the agreements made by the people doing the work that is creating the information.

Lean suggests have explicit agreements between people working together. When these agreements are embedded in the visual control then it can be clear whether people are following these agreements. This enables a group to either self-manage more easily or for a manager to see if people are abiding what they themselves has agreed to to be the best way to do their work. When a disparity occurs, management can ask why and either encourage people to follow their own rules or to improve the rules.

A Visual control:

  • Conveys its information visually
  • Describes the state of the work-in-process
  • Makes the essential part of the process being used explicit
  • Is used to control the work-in-process

Properly designed, a visual control enables:

  • people on the team and elsewhere to see the state of the work being done
  • provides a way for a team to better discuss what their process should be
  • provides a way for management to see if the team is following their own process

Kanban boards are an example of visual controls.  They not only show the work being done but should indicate the way the team is working.

Information radiators convey just information, and not the explicit workflow agreements.

Common information radiators used in Scrum environments include:

  • The product vision
  • The product backlog/release plan
  • The sprint backlog
  • Burn-down and burn-up charts
  • The impediment list

These are often organized on a team project board, a kind of “super” information radiator.

The Difference Between Visual Controls and Information Radiators

Information radiators are useful in that they describe what’s happening in the system.  However, they don’t describe how what’s happening in the system is happening. Consider a monitor at an airport that tells you the arrival and departure times of the flights. You can see what’s happening but not any of the information behind it or how the decisions are being made.  Visual controls, on the other hand, radiate both the work status and the rules and decision data underneath it. This enables managers to just view the visual control to see what’s happening.  Managers don’t dictate the rules – they represent what the team(s) consider to be the best way to get things done.  But they can see if the teams are following their methods and ask them why they aren’t (nicely and as a query, not a reprimand) when they don’t.

Visual controls can also show when work is interrupted, so management can see when forces outside of the control of the team are adversely affecting the team.

Changing culture with visual controls

The following is a paraphrase from Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions by David Mann.

Culture is important, but changing it directly is not possible. Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change.  Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture or a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way a company’s culture is a result of how people collaborate with each other. Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.

Focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and routines practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

Alignment is critical. This requires both what we’re all working towards and how we work together towards that.

Visual controls reinforce new ideas

The true difficulty in transformation is not in knowing what to do but in changing the way people think and the practices they use. Changing mindset is difficult. While the practices themselves are fairly simple, getting rid of ingrained habits is not. Visual controls can reinforce the new required behavior by providing information people need and reminding them of the agreements they have made.

Other pages of interest

Using Visual Controls to See the Flow of Work
Using Visual Controls and Pull to Disseminate Information 
Attending to Culture mentions how visual controls can be used to change culture.