Visual management versus / with tools

On May 21 & 22 I attended Agile Open Belgium again. One of the topics I proposed was ‘Visual management versus / with tools’.

I wanted to challenge the question I often get as an agile coach:

How do we combine the use of a physical task board with a tool such as VersionOne of Microsoft Team Foundation Server?

As you might know, I’m a big proponent of visual management and information radiators. I always propose to work as lightweight as possible using a physical task board and excel to manage the product backlog. In some cases this just isn’t sufficient, for instance when working with a distributed team.

But even when your team is co-located, a tool can have added value for your organization. During the session we started with a brainstorming about the pros and cons of a tool and information radiator:

Then we tried to outline how we could combine the two most efficiently in a case where the team is co-located, but stakeholders get added value by having status information electronically. This is what we came up with based upon the experience of several participants.

  1. The team should only focus on a physical task board where user stories, tasks and burn down are kept up to date. Having to update two task boards automatically leads to one being neglected.
  2. The link with the tool is done by putting the id of each user story on the user story card.
  3. The Scrum master or Product owner is responsible for updating the status of the user stories in the tool.
  4. Tasks are not duplicated in the tool. We’re only interested in the flow of user stories.
  5. Using physical items during planning meetings and retrospectives beats looking at a screen.

My feeling says that this is a pragmatic solution to take advantage of both ways without creating too much overhead and suffering from the weaknesses of both.

What are we getting?

  • Stakeholders can get an oversight about the progress of the product (on feature level) at all times via the tool.
  • The development team can take full benefit of the information radiator.
  • The tool has all necessary information needed for compliance.
  • Occasional remote team members can still access the sprint backlog easily.
  • Continuous improvement often leads to actions on the process which can have impact on the task board. It is easier and quicker to modify a physical task board than an electronic.

The only downside is the slight overhead to keep the task board synced with the tool. But by only updating the status of user stories, that should be reduced to a minimum. I will be experimenting with this in the near future and will let you know how it turns out.  Thanks to all participants for sharing their views!

About Nick Oostvogels

Hi, I'm an independent management consultant. My biggest strengths are located in the fields of teamwork, motivation, leadership and continuous improvement. In the IT industry you find a lot of these values in the agile movement, in which I often act as a project leader, product owner or coach. My interests go a lot further, into other industries where we find these values in lean production. Besides that, I try to broaden my horizon as much as possible, always looking for better ways of doing business.

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