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Visual Management – Creating a Kanban Multiverse

by Karl Scotland

Karl Scotland brings us the origins and the idea behind a Kanban multiverse. He first came up with this idea while chatting with David Anderson about the possible advantage of creating a virtual Kanban board, that because of its non-physical presence could hold in more than a couple of informational dimensions - hence create a multiverse. A Kanban multiverse would be built of Kanban boards regarding all aspects of the process, ranging from boards with particular tasks to boards regarding the general process vision and a company time-line.

How to manage visually?

Karl gives us some ideas behind visual management and the way it works. He mentions three key factors of it:
1. A mental model, that a visualization creates in the user's brain,
2. Kanban board's usability creates the will of the user to engage in it, therefore strengthening the mental model,
3. Consequent going back to the board further fortifies the mental model, which will become more of a constant in the user's memory.

He also points out how Kanban boards can become the common ground (boundary objects) for people working in different departments (focused on completely different aspects of a company), providing a place for transparent exchange of function and idea. Kanban boards also make it easy to create motivation - by seeing what needs to be done, the team strives to have their presence on the board by pulling and completing tasks. This tends to work better than the traditional model of pushing tasks onto individual team members without providing any clarity on the overall workflow.

How to visualize well?

In the next part of the article, K. Scotland refers to Edward Tufte's book on models of visualizing information. Although the possibilities are plentiful, it's non-disagreeable that visualization in Kanban should be based on the horizontal axis as a representation of progress (you could call it time) and the vertical axis as the indication of scope (different projects, areas of work).

Tufte's book also analyzes the best practices in creating Kanban visualizations. The gist of it being that the amount of data ink (task description visible on a board) should be compressed to the merit only - any information that doesn't bring anything valid is considered useless. The other factor - data density (the amount of information held in a particular area) should be maximized, allowing users to benefit from as good an overview as possible from taking a glance at the board. So - bring your task description to a minimum and make Kanban cards as small as you can, to see most of the workflow on a compressed plain.

What dimensions are there in the multiverse?

The number and character of the dimensions will depend very much on the nature of a process. But typically they will be: scope, resources, quality, types, priorities, problems, dependencies, assignments etc. Now, it is only up to the managers to decide how they want to visually represent these; there is color, shape, special icons, location, alignment and other visual differentiations allowing to make the display really multi-leveled.

The conclusion

A Kanban board is more than a signal board. Thanks to the many levels of applied information, by taking one look at it, users can get a lot more information than from following a task board. This is very much because of the mental models that are created in the users' minds.

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Read our article on visual project management »