The future of visual management (is here)


At LeanKit, we’re firm believers in practicing what we preach. The core product that we build is software that allows our customers to create kanban-style boards for managing teams and projects. We think it’s a pretty great tool, and we’re always working to make it better. But, we know that a tool is only as good as the process it supports. Using LeanKit by itself won’t magically make your team better. Using LeanKit to effectively implement Lean-Agile management practices with good technical practices in a healthy, supportive working environment can work wonders.

We’re active participants in the Lean-Agile “community”, going to a lot of events. Of course, part of that is because we have a product to sell. But we are also keenly interested in the latest ideas from community thought-leaders. And we want to see and hear how customers and potential customers are “doing” kanban effectively. That informs our product development, we incorporate those ideas into how we run LeanKit as a company, and we like to share back to the community our experiences as a kanban team.

Which brings us to the future of visual management. A kanban board works best if the team sees it all the time. A whiteboard with sticky notes does that automatically – at least for the people in the room. It doesn’t work so well for a distributed team. An electronic system like LeanKit solves that problem. But you run the risk of the board becoming a status reporting system that people look at occasionally rather than an always-visible information radiator and hub for collaboration.

So how do you get the best of both worlds?

We’ve long thought that the answer lay in interacting with LeanKit via a large screen TV. We’ve seen customers use giant, smart touchscreens like those from Smart Technologies. They’re awesome products made by a great company and, we think, well worth it if you can afford them. But not every departmental manager can justify that kind of capital investment. So, we’ve experimented with retail-available touchscreens like the HP Touchsmarts connected to a normal computer. A very nice option, but still fairly expensive, say $3-4,000 for a screen and computer. More than we felt comfortable recommending to most customers as a real-world actionable solution.

A plain old big-screen LCD is great as a pure information radiator. You can get a 50-inch for about $600 on Amazon. Since a big screen will last years, you’re really talking about 50 cents a day in cost. That should be very do-able if you think about the hourly labor-rate for most of the teams doing kanban and/or the value of the products they produce. But what about interactivity. The touchscreens may be expensive but they let you move cards on your LeanKit board – not just view them.

I can hook up a computer to the LCD, but the cost for a real PC seems a bit much for a screen I only occasionally interact with. And the user interface is a little clumsy for interacting with the board on the screen. Do you put a desk in front of the screen where you move the mouse? Not practical.

Enter the smart TVs

For those who haven’t seen one yet, a smart TV combines (obviously) a TV with a decent-but-not-over-the-top computer processor, integrated WiFi and web browsing, and point-and-click/drag-and-drop interaction with the screen. You can get this included in newer TVs or you can buy add-on devices that plug-in to a TV. We’ve tried several models and found we liked the LG G2’s as the best example of an integrated device and the  Sony Internet Player with Google TV as the best of the add-on options. The integrated device has the benefit of uber-simplicty. Buy it. Hang it on the wall. Plug it in. Go. And they’re not too expensive. About $1,500 for the 55-inch.

We’ve found, however, that we prefer the Sony add-on device. First, they’re definitely cheaper, about $150 plus the TV. So $800 total cost using the Panasonic 50-inch we mentioned above. We also prefer the style of remote that comes with them. The LG’s have a point-and-click Wii-mote style controller. That’s intuitive but a little touchy for fine-grained movements of a mouse. The Sony has more of a touchpad controller, like your laptops only in the palm of your hand. Both controllers have a full QWERTY keyboard on the back. And, even though they are an add-on, all you have to do is plug them into HDMI port of the TV. The remote is even easily programmable to replace the TV remote. The extra install time relative to the LG was measured in minutes.

Making things even better, you can connect other peripherals to the TV through the Sony box. In the picture you see with this story we’ve got a Logitech Skype webcam connected to the TV (just a 42-inch in this case, a new 50-inch arrives later this week) through our Sony box. This allows us to have always-on HD video conferencing between our teams in multiple locations, combined with always-on interactive electronic kanban. It cost less than $1,000 per location. We installed it in minutes (minus the TV bracket) without any special skills or tools. The sales and marketing team did this, not the engineers. And you would not believe how much it improves the quality of interaction between remote teams.

If your entire team can be in the same room to work together all the time, awesome. We’re thrilled for you. But that’s a luxury most of us can’t manage. Distributed teams are reality for most of us. With the latest technology (including LeanKit!) you can retain much more of the experience of being together than ever before. And you can do it easily and cheaply. You probably don’t even need to get permission or get a special budget allocation. Order them from Amazon today. Have them installed in a few days. Start reaping the benefits immediately.

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