Visualizing the Workflow

Visualize the workflow

Humans process visual information much better than any other form of communication. In Kanban, visualization of workflow means mapping distinctive steps of work into columns on a Kanban Board, and tracking work items as they go through them.

What is workflow?

A workflow is the sequence of distinctive steps that tasks or products go through from the start of work to finish.

How to visualize the workflow?

Take a step back and try to think of any process or project that you have been involved with. Now think how difficult it would be to accomplish or complete the process if you didn’t even know what the first step was?

Visualizing the workflow in Kanban is literally the process of naming or mapping all the steps, tasks, or activities a team or a person does, to initiate and complete a piece of work. No matter the process, there will be a list of activities that will take an item, document, or piece of raw material that will increase its value and allow that piece to now fetch a higher price. That list of activities is known as the value stream.

Let’s look at an example of the value stream of building a chair as a piece of furniture. The carpenter would first buy a piece of wood. He would then measure and cut the piece, as well as cut and shape it, glue, and assemble to finally paint and sell the piece. These steps would take a $5 piece of wood and increase the value to be sold as a $50 chair.

Visualizing the Workflow - Mapping Value Stream

The value stream provides clarity and maps a sort of high-level how-to. When traveling in a foreign land and trying to navigate from one place to another, is it easier to try and remember the directions in your head, or is it better that someone draws you a map? Wait, what’s even better, is having a map that is showing you exactly where you are on the map at any given time!. This is Kanban - a kind of “process Google Maps”, so to speak.

Have you heard your team members expressing their frustration in the following ways, “I can’t see the wood for the trees” or “can someone draw me a picture” or “I can’t seem to see any end to the work”? All of these can emphasize just how large a part visualization plays in managing work, and how important it is for people to be able to “see” something. Visualization allows us to plan, and better still - it allows us to wait and work with more ease.

Once you visualize your workflow, you must now track all your work through that process. This can be done through the means of job card numbers, or order numbers. Tracking the status of work items as they move through the process will allow you to see bottlenecks, blockages, and spot where yourself or your teammates are over-committed.

It’s a common problem for beginner project managers to have difficulty with delegating work. We all tend to place a lot of value on our personal work, and this can make us reluctant to assign any of it to others. Now, imagine you have a Kanban board from the start of a project - with all tasks mapped out, along with their urgency and difficulty - can you see how much easier delegating work can become? Furthermore, it allows team members to take the initiative and suggest themselves for specific tasks they see on the board.

Kanban can mean a “signboard” in Japanese, and it can also mean a “signal card” - that was how it was used in Toyota. However, in Chinese, it is more accurately translated as the activity of looking at the board. What this shows is that the very activity of visualization is in the very name of Kanban.

So start by talking to your team and making sure you have an agreed step by step process to create value. What you will see is:

  • There are a lot of steps being worked on, that do not really need to be done to complete the job - delegate these.
  • What is the real value stream, the real activities that need to be completed to generate value - watch these like a hawk.
  • Where several activities are getting stuck for a period of time - these are the bottlenecks, jump in here to help your teammates.

Then put these steps on a board, spend 5 to 10 minutes a day with your team looking at the board, and if anyone needs help - jump in and make a quick plan to get the work flowing again.

Have you seen professional racing car drivers or a pilot of a bobsled team? A lot of them walk the track before they drive it. You’ll often see them with their eyes closed, visualizing their teammates taking the bend. Visualization is critical to their team’s success. Kanban will enable you to visualize your process, see the team moving towards success, and enable them to reach their goals!