Making Work Visible, by Dominica DeGrandis

As mentioned in a previous blog post A Journey from Scrum to Kanban and to Scrum Again, I got into the Kanban idea, and believe that if implemented and executed well, it could be very useful to manage tasks in work. Unfortunately, our team, who initially wanted to give it a try eventually decided not to use this approach for various reasons after half a year without seeing its value. I believed that the reason Kanban didn’t bring much value to our team as a whole was partially due to our limited understanding of Kanban at the time, and partially due to the fact that we didn’t commit enough to the execution of our initial thought. However I personally felt it’s not Kanban’s fault. In fact I found Kanban quite useful in managing my own work, as mentioned in that post.

Later I invested a little more in the Kanban ideas. I started to use OmniFocus the Kanban way, and read more about Kanban, including the book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft To Optimize Work & Flow that I’ll review in this post.

Overview

Overall this book is not exactly about Kanban, though a lot of it are easy to understand if you know Kanban already.

The book starts with identifying five ways that we unknowingly had to work more than we expected and cause project delays, which are 1. too many WIP 2. unknown dependencies 3. unplanned work 4. conflicting priorities 5. neglected work

I can’t agree more with this list. I have experienced each and every type of time thief in these five types in the past year. Two of my main projects in this year repeatedly conflicted with each other in priority (because of due date shifts over and over for one of them), so that I had to keep them both as WIP for a long period of time, and lost valuable time in context switching. Another project of mine was barely started due to the various dependencies; I had to spend a fair amount of time chasing other teams to deliver our dependency before we could start. Our team’s tech debt in past years, either neglected or low-prioritized by us, started to come back to bite us over the course of this year, so that we had to stop what we were doing and work on those unplanned work.

The author then advances to the main thesis of the book–how to use visual approaches to attach each of the time thieves. Too many WIP? Use Kanban and limit WIP. Unknown dependencies? Draw out a dependency matrix. Unplanned work? Maintain a dedicated swim lane just to show how much work is unplanned. Conflicting priorities? Here are several ways to visualize. Neglected work? Explicitly call them out on your Kanban. (Note I am over-simplifying here. The book contains much more details and especially useful coaching exercises for each of the methods introduced.)

The last part of this book introduces how to measure the effectiveness of the approaches, and how to incorporate feedback and making any solution an iterative improvement.

Notes

A couple of noteworthy concepts / ideas in the book * I personally find the notion “HiPPO prioritization” (prioritization by the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”) pretty amusing. I now can’t get out of my mind imageries of bigger and bigger hippos when I think about my manager chain up. * There is not only the Kanban board when it comes to task / project management. In fact, there are dozens of different visualizations shown in this book, capturing different use cases. * Visualizations of work done have better to be accompanied by good analytics, be it simple counting of items in certain categories, or means of exhibiting costs and adding them up, or even queuing theory equations. Visualization simply for the purpose of being visual is not that helpful.

Pluses

The book’s focus is well demonstrated across the pages. The coaching exercises in each section should be very helpful if this book is used as a workshop material. All the different visualizations presented in this book are eye-opening, and all-color pages make them even more visually appealing.

Minuses

I personally felt that the book could be expanded a little more. With only sub 200-page content, many of the ideas of the book are not presented to the extend of details they deserve to be. This becomes more and more the case towards the end of the book, in part three. Several sections look like short notes that the author jotted down, and assembled up without furnishing. There are even single sentence paragraphs that don’t seem to fit to their contexts at all.

Summary

I believe this book is overall worth reading, especially for people who think visually. It provides an abundant, valuable set of visual means of thinking about task management in a corporate setting. Making good use of the visual tool set / methodology introduced in this book, there would be less time theft from us and more results delivered.