You Cannot Yell at a Board with Stickies on It

Jim BensonPrimers6 Comments

Arguments are not productive Kanban It is now two weeks before your major deadline.

For the last four weeks, you’ve barely slept a wink. You know your team is behind. They know they’re behind. But the deadline is firm. Your team promises you – nay, vows to you it will be done on schedule. You, in turn, promise the client who in turn, promises their bosses. Their bosses are promising their clients …

Everything is riding on this release.

You close your office door and look at the remaining unfinished requirements. You begin to add up the time you think it will take to complete.

Nope. Not even close.

You go to your team and tell them what you’ve found. They get upset and begin yelling about how meetings like this are what slows them down. “If only we could just do our work!”

You yell back. “We’re too far behind! We’ll never finish!”

The situation is as predictable as it is unnecessary.

What we have here is not necessarily a failure to communicate but instead, a confluence of avoidance behaviors exacerbated by a lack of a visual control.


Okay, it’s kind of convoluted, so let’s bullet it out:

  • No one ever had a device that could show – visually – the state of the project and the context in which decisions were made;
  • Since no one could see what was happening, they relied on reports that lagged decision-making and often told an incomplete story;
  • Incomplete elements were then left to be discussed in meetings, which were often adversarial, conducted hastily, and poorly documented;
  • People were then required to rely on individual memory and interpretation of events;
  • When these memories diverged, they became angry when their interpretations were perceived as being different from reality;
  • Divergence from reality then became a point of conflict;
  • The points of conflict were argued about;
  • Those in positions of power declared their faulty memory to be the standard, and those who were not in agreement were treated like failures;
  • Blame for divergence from schedule or delivery promises was then directed towards “the failures,” and
  • Everyone loses: product is late, the workforce is demoralized, management is angry, money is lost, quality is deprecated.

Short form: No one had a status board to point to and say Look! You see? That is what is going on! Regardless of which side of the management / worker or client / consultant fence you might sit, reality is much easier to address when you can actually see it.

A kanban (see image) is a status board. It shows who is working on what, which tasks come next for each group to pull from, and the rate at which work flows through the system. In addition to being a powerful project management tool, the kanban also decreases the animosity frustrating work can generate.

Visualizing work on a kanban can help depersonalize arguments

You see, the issues that slow production are rarely sabotage, subterfuge, or incompetence. Instead, they’re more likely due to lack of necessary information, conflicting expectations, hidden policies, and the intricacies of knowledge work. Seldom is it personal. But we personalize it nevertheless, because it’s all we have. We can’t make our tools work faster, so we yell at our people.

A visual control gives the team a gift: a disinterested third party that merely reports reality. The kanban becomes an interactive arbitrator. Our work is no longer the responsibility of one person. On the board it becomes an object (the sticky note) that everyone involved wants to move. The inability to move a sticky note becomes a shared responsibility, and is no longer personified by the last person holding the task.

In this way, the board depersonalizes work. Now, rather than yelling at each other, you can get together and yell at the stickies on the board.

Wait, that sounds pretty stupid.

If yelling at a sticky note seems stupid, why did it ever seem like a good idea to yell at your co-workers / employees / consultants? Did you think abusing them was going to spur them to greatness?

With the kanban, we can look at the work as it happens, discuss changes that need to be made, and work towards our release date with realistic expectations.

Image “Argument” by Fred Camino
Image of kanban by David Laribee

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Jim BensonYou Cannot Yell at a Board with Stickies on It

6 Comments on “You Cannot Yell at a Board with Stickies on It”

  1. Pingback: Il meglio della blogosfera lean #82 — Encob Blog

  2. Jim Benson

    I’d say just set up your board and lead by example! Sometimes you have to manage your managers… 🙂

  3. Berthold

    I’ve done exactly that, implemented Kanban in the project I’m managing to build a showcase for my seniors. I’d be delighted if they found it useful or inspiring, since everybody here pretty much agrees that agile is awesome, but we have yet to find a way of implementing it.

  4. Varsha

    Hi Jim

    I am From Mumbai India work With Publishing House .My Profile is Head Marketing & Sales
    it involves Selling books to Trade Book Stores through Distributors/ Corporate / as WEll as institutes . It requires constant Adding of New Clients Generating New Business. I would like to or have Advice.. How do i USE Personal Kanban at Optimum to Achieve Desired Goal.. at Times there is too much of Incoming Work that needs Attention and the work Planned gets delayed or hold at that point.I really seek you Advice and Intent to be more Productive and more Efficient.


  5. stuart

    One of the key points is to always focus on the cards to the right of the board i.e. focus on the work that is nearest completion.
    If this means the cards on the left, new work, start to increase use this as a visual tool to show your boss you need more resource to help you!

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