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Visual controls help small teams achieve. Controls reduce stress, adapt to changing conditions, and provide clarity for the users. Project managers can use visual controls like Personal Kanban to help members deal with the variability inherent in knowledge work. A short case study from a world bank project by Modus Cooperandi.
Personal Kanban at the World Bank - Small Team Rapid Development
In September 2009, Modus
Cooperandi was approached
by CGIAR - an NGO with ties to
the World Bank - to conduct a
“Writeshop.” During this week-
long workshop, 16 scientists and
economists from around the
world convened in Washington
DC to produce a document
addressing the reduction of
carbon emissions from
deforestation. At the beginning of
the week, participants arrived
with a document in various
stages of completion.
Their goal: to finish 90% of the
document by the end of the 5
While the work was assumed to be straightforward, their goal was
ambitious. Our history with knowledge work suggested a need for caution
When planning a project with a new client, we often discuss the role
uncertainty plays in knowledge work. Whether creating software or
authoring documents, things never progress exactly as planned. A
computer freezes up, a section of text won't gel, easy research hits a
snag, a section of code runs into unforeseen technical issues. Such is the
capricious nature of knowledge work.
After we establish that variation and
uncertainty often dictate knowledge
work, we can then accept that
traditional, Gantt-chart style
management is perhaps the most
unscientific way to manage knowledge
workers. Gantt charts impose a false
level of certainty on a highly variable
project, and then impose that arbitrary
guess as law.
Assumption-based management will not
Managing knowledge work therefore must account for variation.
Variation is often subtle, and difficult to spot as it is happening. Visual
controls that communicate what is being done at any given time
highlight these subtleties. The writeshop was 100% knowledge work.
We were creating an unknown product from assumed elements in a
short period of time. As such, we wanted to employ techniques that
would best mesh with the group's personality and manage the large
number of unknowns we would be facing. The team needed a visual
control that would be tailored to this specific project and highlight that
variation. The stakes in a rapid-release product like this are high
because there's little room for error. We had to do it right the first
At Modus Cooperandi, we enjoy projects
like this: short duration, high focus,
immense value. We fully expect that they
never go the way the event planner
foresees. Holes in assumptions and
variations in work become immediately
apparent and often can be addressed
quickly. Projects of short duration leave
little room for procrastination.
The Nature of Knowledge Work
By its very nature, knowledge work is:
Highly variable - discrete tasks can be very short (a matter of
seconds), or extremely long (a matter of months)
Recursive - multiple passes of edits, rewrites, and new
Innovative - most knowledge work involves the creation of
something: new code, new text, a new product...
Surprising – in a positive way, knowledge work helps us
discover novel ways of doing things. In the not-so-positive-way
the uncharted waters of knowledge work can take projects off-
course because it is difficult to plan for the unknown.
While variability, recursiveness, innovation, and surprises are natural
components of most work, they are especially prevalent in knowledge work.
These attributes wreck havoc with traditional “guesswork” project planning
practices such as waterfall methodologies (in which the lifecycle of the project
flows in an assumed predictable, downward direction) and their supporting
tools like Microsoft Project. As a result, knowledge work is often challenging to
pin down in terms of duration, work flow, and outcomes. Difficult? You bet.
Impossible? Certainly not.
What was previously thought of as
hard project planning, waterfall
methodologies are usually
personality-driven, and rely on
unrefined management techniques
that involve the following steps:
1. Assign someone a project
2. Give them a project plan
3. Establish an unreasonable time
4. Set an unreasonable budget
5. Instruct them to make a
6. Become upset when then project
doesn’t meet the schedule
When creating the CGIAR document, we needed a rapid management
tool that would allow us to track the group's progress at any point in
time. Our ideal tool needed to give the group clarity in their
progress. While respecting recursive tasks and the variability of
work the tool needed to reward innovation and dealing with surprises.
And it needed to be simple and real-time. No Gantt charts, no burn-
down charts, no cumulative flow diagrams.
It needed to be as simple as a traffic signal.
It needed to develop itself, by crushing our assumptions and asserting
itself in relation to the way our group operated.
Lastly, it needed a development environment to run in.
The Evolution of a Management
At the World Bank:
Our Assumptions, the Reality, and the Products
small groups writing
at small tables
Reality: The project took place in your average conference room. We
had one long table, and no means to divide it up. Our original
assumption was that we were going to distribute the group into 3 or
4 person teams, and have them blast away at various modules in the
document. Alas, the room we were given didn't allow for that. So we
pulled a page from Extreme Programming - pair programming (where
two programmers work on the same piece of code - one writes and
the other participates) - and created pair writing teams.
We are writing a document
Writing begins on day one
Reality: When you're hired to oversee the creation of a document, common sense dictates that document
creation is your primary focus. In this case, the product turned out to be instructional material to teach
techniques for calculating the opportunity costs of deforestation to agencies in small countries. This gave us a
defined customer and a defined product. When we realized this, the nature of the week's work radically shifted.
For two full days, attendees engaged in good, productive conversations. At the end of the 2nd day, a
spreadsheet model for calculating opportunity costs was developed. The nature of the document suddenly
shifted from explaining complex theory, to explaining the spreadsheet model; the final product went from a
textbook, to an enhanced user manual and study guide.
Work was a linear process of
outline -> writing -> revision -> completion
Reality: Each two person team was given a module or two to work
on. By the beginning of the third day, actual text writing began
(mind you, this is already after losing the assumption that writing
would commence on day one).
Outline writing became an exploration exercise. For a complete
outline there needed to be several writing "spikes" - short bits of
text were written to explore a direction proposed by the
outline. Further writing - even writing in other modules - informed
and highlighted needs, creating expansions of the outline.
So a bit of outline was written, followed by some text, the outline in
turn was enhanced, then more text was written, and so on. What
resulted was a highly recursive set of work requiring a recursive
This recursive control like the one to the left. At regular intervals, two or three
times a day, we would ask the groups how far along they were with
their modules in terms of both the outline and the text. They would
control shows then assign a 1 to 10 rating of completeness.
progress to the The goals of a visual control are to show progress and illustrate what
progress really means. Over the course of working with the World
group as it Bank group, the estimate would progress from 5, 7, and then up to
8 and then fall back to 6 as people gained greater insight into what
"done" really meant. To be sure, this was exciting to watch, as
happens. The participants delighted in moving from a 2nd or 3rd order of
ignorance to a 1st order of ignorance. First they didn't know what
group understands they didn't know. Now they knew what they didn't know and could
move purposely towards completion.
where everyone is
and what is needed
The tools for completion were the
familiar Microsoft Office Suite
Reality: The less evolved but more collaborative Google Docs suite provided an immediate basis for group
writing. While the majority of scientists and economists had little or no experience with Google Docs (for some
we set up accounts at the time of the writeshop), the sharable and open Google Doc platform gave participants
the ability not only to collaborate on their own modules, but also to quickly add value to other modules.
There were points where someone working on one module would say across the table something like, "Hey,
can you take a look at what I just wrote?" or "Can you add to this?" And in real-time, with very little
opportunity cost, participants could add value to other sections of the document. This open framework and
immediacy of expertise removed much of the scheduling and familiarization pain that comes with group
Lean tools like Personal Kanban help tame the
unknown by facing it head on. Lean systems usually
rely on a visual control that makes work visible. As
work cycles through a visual control, the variation in
work becomes visibly apparent, and we learn to
manage that variation. This is a elaborate way of
saying people and things never do what you expect
them to, and good managers understand this up-
What we learn from this is that by its very nature
knowledge work is a product development process.
We discover that knowledge work has definable
customers, parameters of usefulness, and is
developed - not in a predictable and linear fashion -
but in a recursive and collaborative fashion. While
elements of knowledge work certainly can have a
defined work flow, understanding the variability and
being able to work with it is where the true value of a
Lean Thinking for Individuals and Small Teams
Read more about Personal Kanban
Modus Cooperandi Presents:
Monthly webinars on Personal Kanban and related
applications. See the Personal Kanban site
(personalkanban.com) for topics, schedule, and prices.
Consulting / Training / Team Launches
We offer direct training for corporate clients. Teams learn
to improve their communication both internally and with the
rest of the organization using the visualization and clarity
facilitated by Personal Kanban. Training includes the Consulting projects tend to focus on working with teams and
techniques of Personal Kanban, the integration of Personal individuals to identify clear and low-impact processes to quickly
Kanban for individuals and teams into work flows, value create value. See our recent project at the World Bank for an
stream mapping, metrics, and the use of retrospectives to idea of the issues we might cover.
create cultures of continuous improvement. Supporting Documents
Training should never occur out of context, so most training A series of information packages designed to discuss these
includes an examination of actual team work flows, issues with decision makers is on its way.
management styles, communications channels, policies, Contact
and practices that impact productivity and value creation. Reach us by e-mail at email@example.com
During the course of the training, we help teams discover on the web at www.moduscooperandi.com
better ways of managing and communicating that will or www.personalkanban.com
survive beyond the training session. Our training is never a follow us on twitter at twitter.com/moduscoop
talking head, it is highly relevant and participatory. via phone at +1.206.383.6088
or skype at ourfounder
P.S. This document is a visual control
The images in this document provide visual cues for the
emotions and messages being presented. They complete and
extend the information being expressed in text.
The narrative then follows both a pictographic and a textual
A visual control in a work group does much the same thing,
providing the qualitative, quantitative, and emotional messages
that comprise our work. Having this information come both via
visual cues and in written language interacts with multiple
learning centers in the brain, making visual controls excellent
management tools for people of all learning styles.
Images in this document by creative commons
license or permission of the artists
Flickr Photo Download: New t-shirt I bought from
Flickr Photo Download: gantt
Flickr Photo Download: The Way To The Unknown
Flickr Photo Download: Train wreck
Aerial Train Wreck on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
Flickr Photo Download: Explosion (Movie Park Germany)
Flickr Photo Download: Virginia Waterfall
Flickr Photo Download: Washington National Cathedral
Flickr Photo Download: Group around a small table
Flickr Photo Download: Olivetti Lettera DL Typewritr
Flickr Photo Download: The day of reckoning is nigh.
Flickr Photo Download: Belize rain fo