Project Management Institute

Traffic lights to burndowns

an introduction to visual management systems

You look up and see a traffic light turn from green to yellow to red. But you're not sitting in your car — you're sitting at your workstation. Someone on the software development team just broke the build. You know this and you didn't have to be explicitly told. Humans can glean a wealth of information from their surroundings in just milliseconds. Informative workspaces and big visible charts have demonstrated this. Although visual management of information is not a new phenomenon for agile teams, it has become a critical tool to improve their performance. Following, are a few common Visual Management System (VMS) tools found both inside and outside our organizations.

What is a Visual Management System (VMS)?

Visual management or control is a “technique employed in many places where information is communicated by using visual signals instead of texts or other written instructions. The design is deliberate in allowing quick recognition of the information being communicated in order to increase efficiency and clarity.” (Visual Control, 2012, ¶2) Signals can come in many forms — from different colored lights, tapes, or cards, to focusing measures upon the size of the problem or commitment and not the size of the activity, to kanban and team boards and many other diverse examples.

The Difference between a VMS and an Information Radiator

In his book Crystal Clear (2004), Alistair Cockburn introduces the idea of a highly visible information radiator that allows the viewer to understand information at a glance. It is large and easily viewable, changing periodically and easily kept up to date. An information radiator is a display posted in a place where people can see it as they work or walk by. It shows readers information they care about without having to ask anyone a question. This means more communication with fewer interruptions.

The primary difference between information radiators and a visual management system is that it makes problems, abnormalities, or deviations from standards visible to everyone so corrective action can be taken immediately. Efficiency and effectiveness of returning to the norm are achieved simply by deliberately making things visible. When things are visible, they are kept in the conscious mind.

Real-World Examples in Your Automobile

Door Ajar Warning Light:

This indicator on the automobile dashboard should illuminate if the driver has not secured one or more of the doors of the vehicle. Unlike a seatbelt indicator light in some current automobile models, there is no audible queue to provoke the driver or passengers into action. Upon realizing a door is ajar, drivers must open and close each door to ensure there is no sensor malfunction. Without this visual queue, drivers or passengers may discover a door is not properly secured until it is too late.

Low Fuel Indicator Light:

This warning light normally indicates the car is very low on fuel and the driver needs to find a service station as soon as possible. Fortunately, cars are also equipped with either a dial or digital fuel gauge that shows the current level of gasoline in the tank. Regardless of knowing how many miles are left in the gas tank before it is empty, having the light appear still creates a certain level of anxiety. Depending on the driver's level of risk aversion, the gauge is the primary motivator to refill the tank.

Check Engine Warning Light:

Of the automobile dashboard lights, this indicator is probably the most general and also creates the most anxiety among drivers. Due to the financial consequences of ignoring this warning light, drivers usually heed its advice and have a mechanic address the issue in very short order. Issues could range from needing to replace a ninety-nine cent fuse to needing to replace the engine. Ignore the light and something as trivial and inexpensive as adding a quart of oil could result in repairs in the thousands of dollars.

Automobile dashboard indicators

Exhibit 1 – Automobile dashboard indicators.

In all three cases (Exhibit 1), we've probably all interacted with these visual controls. We don't need a voice telling us something is wrong. We don't even need a persistent buzzer to sound off. A simple illuminated light, requiring direct action to extinguish it, is a powerful tool.

Traffic Lights

Traffic light

Exhibit 2 – Traffic light.

Old traffic equipment sometimes is the best notification system for communicating the current state of software (Huether, 2011, ¶2). Although using a traffic light in the center of a team room (Exhibit 2) may sound odd to some teams unfamiliar with agile practices, it is a very powerful communication tool as noted. It aligns the team by sharing important information in an unorthodox fashion.

The stoplight can be rigged to a continuous integration monitor (which displays the integration status of all active projects), displaying an aggregate of this information. A red light indicates there is a problem. Either the build failed to compile, an automated test failed, or some other critical event has taken place that needs to be addressed immediately. The yellow light indicates there is a change being processed. Perhaps someone has just checked in code, and the automated build process has been launched or automated tests are being run. A green light means that everything is running smoothly. The combination of negative and positive reinforcement and real-time feedback encourages team members to address issues as they happen, yet move forward with appropriate work without having to be explicitly told to do either.

Burndown Charts

On many agile projects, the team(s) will track progress against a release plan by updating a release burndown chart at the conclusion of each iteration. The horizontal axis of a burndown chart denotes the progression of time; the vertical axis denotes the amount of work remaining or completed, as of the end of the last time period or timebox.

Because a typical burndown chart focuses on the amount of work remaining in relation to time remaining, it allows its use on several levels. The burndown allows flexibility in the unit of work (ideal hours, story points, etc.) and the unit of time (release, iteration, month, etc.). Having separate burndown charts for the release and the iteration allows the right people to see the right level of information and then take appropriate action when needed. To help identify if deliverables are “on schedule” or if teams are meeting their commitments, an ideal trend line may be added (Exhibit 3).

Release burndown chart

Exhibit 3 – Release burndown chart.

This trend line will range from zero work completed on day one to zero work remaining on the last day of the timebox. Including both the actual and the proposed data points, and then plotted over time, helps teams visualize any deviation from the norm. Are the teams over or under committing? Were work estimations wrong? By visualizing real-time information, it forces teams and the organization to at least be aware of the current work completion rates. As work completion deviates further from the norm, action must be taken to bring it back into alignment. Although burndown charts are usually located in the team area, people outside the team will benefit the most because it communicates information above the team level.

Process improvement starfish chart

Exhibit 4 – Process improvement starfish chart.

Is the team working to its potential or spiraling out of control? Businesses should not wait until the end of their current iteration, release, or project to document and improve team activities or practices. One option is to create a Process Improvement Starfish Chart (Exhibit 4). On a team board or flip chart, a circle is drawn and segmented into five quadrants: Stop Doing, Do Less, Keep Doing, Do More, and Start Doing. Please note that these are merely recommendations. The content and order are not important. With a stack of sticky notes and a pen nearby, the team is encouraged to add notes to the board when the mood or event strikes them. Don't wait!

Occasionally, a facilitated retrospective is necessary to help the process move forward. The act of collecting ideas is not just to make people feel better. Notes captured on this board are all candidates for becoming action items. If too many ideas are on the board, a consensus strategy can be used to identify the most valuable action items. If these are a lot of notes in the Start Doing or Stop Doing quadrants, urgent action may be in order. The starfish chart provides direction to the team in their goal of process improvement.

Some starfish chart segments could include:

  • Keep Doing (=): Capture good things that are happening.
  • Do Less (<): Anything that might need a bit more refining or that is simply waste. Is there something that adds value but not as much as something else could?
  • Do More (>): Are there value-add activities the team may want to try more of but are not necessarily taking full advantage of?
  • Stop Doing (−): What are some things that are not very helpful or not adding much value?
  • Start Doing (+): Suggest new things! You read or heard about something that helped others like you. What do you have to lose?

Team Emotion Chart

Too many times, companies focus too much attention on metrics like team performance and team efficiency, while ignoring metrics like team emotion or happiness (Huether, 2012). In a Team Emotion Chart (Exhibit 5), at the conclusion of a development cycle, a team held a retrospective meeting. With the aid of a facilitator, the team discussed what went well and what could be improved during the next interval or prior to the next scheduled event. The meeting was time-boxed to help ensure it did not turn into an out-of-control complaining session. When properly facilitated, the team comes out of the meeting with an actionable list for improvement candidates.

At the conclusion of the team retrospective, it was time for the final task of the iteration. It was time to know how the team felt.

As you can see from this representation of an actual team's emotion ratings, the team was happy during iteration planning and the first week of the two-week iteration. Things did not go so well during the second week or the iteration review. What are most telling from this exhibit are individual team member feelings from the retrospective meeting. Team members were very happy.

Team emotion chart

Exhibit 5 – Team emotion chart.

During the retrospective, the team discussed how they could make the next iteration (and review) better. Although the team was empowered to change processes, in order to be happier, management was originally focused on productivity. Upon review of historical data illustrating a correlation between the happiness of the team and their productivity, the organization changed its focus to keeping the team happy.


Since our teenage years, we have been conditioned to heed the warnings of automobile indicator lights and traffic signals. When reaction time is sometimes critical, these simple visual controls are all that are necessary to keep us happy and safe. Although communications is critical to keep projects and people moving forward, sometimes the effectiveness and simplicity of these tools are forgotten. Volumes of instruction and status are written in the hope of communicating a common message. At the Agile 2012 conference, Jeff Patton was quoted as saying “we don't need an accurate document, we need a shared understanding” (Patton, 2012). Visual Management Systems provide that shared understanding.


Cockburn, A. (2004). Crystal clear. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional.

Huether, D. (2011). Judging an agile book. Retrieved from from

Huether, D. (2012). Measuring team emotion. Retrieved from from

Patton, J. (2012). The product owner role is a stupid idea: Improving how we handle customer requests. Agile 2012 conference, Dallas, Texas.

Visual Control (2012). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from from

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2012, Derek Huether
Published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, British Columbia



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