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Do we really, really need a board?

The kanban board is one of the first elements of Kanban you will probably hear about. It is the heart of visualization practice, which is the first of the six Kanban core practices. We’ve also talk about it twice already: that Kanban method is not the same thing as a board and that your board should keep improving and adjusting. Recently I came across an interesting video by Joshua Kerievsky: “Alternatives to the kanban board”. The main talking point here (spoilers alert!) is that not each and every team needs any kind of process visualization to flow the work. Moving the logic back to the Kanban practices, it means that you cut out the visualization part and leave only “manage flow”. Josh argues that there are teams, he was a part of, which didn’t need to move items left to right – they’ve just huddled and discussed continuously, what needs to be done – and it was done. My first thought was like: “What? Maybe that works in small, independent teams”. Then I looked at the comments below the video and the other people’s observations were pretty similar. Of course, visualization may take different forms – not only physical white board. I will summarize then why to visualize and specifically – why to use the white board for that. The importance of visualization:

  • when you work in a team bigger than 5-6 people and you simply cannot huddle all the time, the visualization plays the role of a huddle room;

  • when you work remotely or in distributed teams, again you cannot huddle too much;

  • when your process is s part of a bigger process, visualization helps you to see the upstream and downstream pieces;

  • when your team is new or new team members arrive, visualization helps to understand and organize work and put all blocks in the right place;

  • when your process is too big to “embrace” it in your mind or you simply don’t realize it fully yet, it’s better to draw it;

  • when you really want to SEE your process with all its strengths and weaknesses to really improve it;

  • when you try to limit WiP, it’s much easier to visualize it rather then remember about it;

  • actually visualization tool is also your “carry-on”, external memory – just leave the space in your brain for something less constantly changing than the current state of your process;

  • “The purpose of visualization is to unhide hidden work, particularly hidden inventory of work accumulating in hidden, unbounded queues” – Travis Birch, KCP;

  • it’s impossible to scale up small team huddling.

The benefits of a physical kanban board:

  • you can finally see your process in front of your eyes – and it’s not a metaphor;

  • you can release the potential of your creative, energetic team that needs challenges and likes crafty work;

  • you can physically feel when the work is done (and this is a great moment, believe me!);

  • the physical part of the board (like post its, stickers, magnets, avatars) are the mini-tools to support the important elements of your Kanban implementation (e.g. you limit the number of avatars available for the team to the WiP limits your team agrees on, so they cannot pick up more work);

  • when your stakeholders walk around, they see what you are working on;

  • it’s easier to hide blockers, inventory piling up or additional work in computer-based tools than on board; and the easiest is to hide it in your mind!

  • the last but not least: the white board is a team building tool, which helps to consolidate team members around it.

I was very reluctant to introduce the white board in my team’s work, but when we once did it, the board became our new team member, who helps us a lot in daily activities. We cannot imagine our work without it right now!

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