How visual workflow management can help your team get through 'Working from Home'​

by Carl Weller on 23/03/2020 11:00

How visual workflow management can help your team get through 'Working from Home'

This article is republished from my original How visual workflow management can help your team get through 'Working from Home'​ post in LinkedIn.

There's a funny thing about knowledge work; its invisible, sometimes even when it is done. It's sitting in a report or on a hard drive. It's not like a physical thing in a workshop or factory. We can't see where work is flowing, where it gets stuck, where our teammates need a hand. This will be even more of an issue with many teams transitioning to working from home as a result of COVID-19.


Coordinating many of the things we do at work relies on physical proximity and often chance exchanges of information (the legendary 'water cooler' chats). We need to find new ways to ensure people know what they need to know to do their jobs and help each other through the next few months.

Fortunately, many of these 'new' ways have been used quite extensively for the past 10-15 years in parts of most organisations. Task boards or 'Kanban' boards are a standard way of working for many IT teams, but they have their roots in physical manufacturing. Visual workflow management is a key component of the Toyota Production System.

In this initial post I'm not going to go into the merits of Jira vs Trello vs Azure DevOps - or the many other tools there are. In many cases your organisation will already have these tools in place, although often just in the IT department (so it might not be as much a case of choosing one as simply getting access to the tool your organisation has already chosen). I'm sure there are going to be quite a few extra licenses required for the next few months!

To get started there are really only two things to focus on:

1.      Visualise your work, and

2.      Adjust the way you work based on what you see.

Below is a very basic visual workflow that any team can use.

Very basic visual workflow that any team can use

You can see work not yet started, work started but not finished, and work that is complete or "Done". This is a good place to start.

From here we can add more detail. But please remember the purpose of this way of working is to communicate. Only add more detail when it helps you communicate better.

For example, show who is working on what:

Show who is working on what on your visual board

Or to show if an item is blocked and needs something done to unblock it (pink sticky):

Or to show if an item is blocked and needs something done to unblock it (pink sticky)

Or to create a clear visual signal about a task that needs to be urgently completed:

Or to create a clear visual signal about a task that needs to be urgently completed

One last thing: create an extra column so you can show work that is planned for some time in the future vs work that you have committed to do right now. When it is in the "Next" column its important and the team needs to get it done as soon as possible. This is effectively the team's input queue to pick jobs from.

Extra column showing work that is to do and work that is immediately next

Adding the Next column allows you to separate what might be a long list of things, from the few things you as a team need to do right now. It helps you focus on the current priorities but still be aware of the bigger picture.

As a team you should start a regular event to prioritise what needs to go into the Next column. How often? As often as you need to so that the Next column doesn't run dry. We may all be constantly re-prioritising work for the next wee while, so its better to do so when you need to, rather than at a pre-agreed cadence.

I'll keep writing these posts. Please reach out to me, or my colleagues by contacting us, if you need help with getting your (newly) offsite teams up and running.

You may also be interested in related posts I wrote around this time last year:

Carl Weller is a Principal Consultant specialising in Project Management and Agile Leadership, based in our Wellington office.

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