Road Experiences Offer Learning and Inspiration Around Visual Management

Part of the nextERA Voice Series

ARTICLE | Oct 31, 2018
by Michael Davis, Durham County, NC Strategic Initiative Manager

What’s the wave of the future in local government performance management?

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that this question -- while painfully mundane to some -- entered your curious noggin at some point in the last year or two (or I bet even within the last month).

Plenty of people would put their money on online dashboards as the top emerging trend, particularly as the public rightfully calls for more transparency and accountability. And I think that’s right: we’ll see more communities move financial and budgetary reporting and performance measures to the Web for anyone to see.

In addition to that, I’d humbly submit the following innovation: the modest, but oh-so-versatile dry-erase board. Backed up, of course, by multi-colored markers, sticky notes, painter’s tape and printed-out pie charts and bar graphs.

I’m talking about what the practitioners call “visual management.” Visual management -- which is associated with “Lean” methodology -- simply displays work flow, project status or key performance indicators in an easy to use format that multiple team members can update. Visual management can be housed online through popular tools like Trello. However, some of the best visual management examples I’ve seen live on old-fashioned whiteboards or even flip chart papers on a wall.

Earlier this year, I experienced visual management through two professional development opportunities. First, I was able to visit with the King County, Wash. Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget the day before April’s Transforming Local Government conference in Tacoma, Wash. There, our guides walked us around their downtown Seattle offices, where teams use visual boards for regular “huddles” on work progress and on efforts to achieve performance goals.

For example, one human resources team responsible for hiring new employees constructed and managed a board that showed how each open position was progressing “down the field” to eventually be hired and on-boarded as a new King County staffer. Being the home of the Seattle Seahawks, each new hire was represented as a player’s helmet moving from left to right along a visual representation of a football field. Once an employee’s hire status was official, that paper helmet was placed in the far right “end zone” to signify that the process was complete. This board also had a way to track how long hiring was taking, with the ultimate goal of getting employees through the process and on board with King County faster.

King County is intentional about using visual management for various audiences. A 2017 Government Finance Review article succinctly explains how the organization is leaning into (pun intended) such hands-on boards -- where sticky notes, push pins and tape allow for a tactile employee experience -- in order to foster common knowledge, goals and metrics. For an even deeper dive, I recommend King County’s Tier Board and Rounding Guidebook.

Then in June, I had the good fortune of attending Denver Peak Academy for Black Belt training in innovation and continuous improvement techniques. Peak also recommends visual management. One morning during our week-long training, we were able to visit the Peak offices to see some examples of how that team uses boards on the wall to track work progress. For an example, check out this Peak Academy blog post on “Kanban” boards, which are used to document -- from “to do” to “doing” to “done” -- the status of work projects and tasks.

After these two inspiring on-site experiences, our Durham County Strategic Initiatives team has embraced visual management. We’re using personal Kanban boards to visually track our individual work projects. We’re employing a team Kanban board that we use for regular meetings so that we have a common discussion place for conversations and decision making. And we’re evangelizing visual management to employees and teams every chance we get. Our team recently held an “Innovation Lessons from the Road” event to share some of what we learned in King County and Denver. And we’re offering to help employees construct their own work boards for personal or team use.

I like tactile visual management tools because they can be as simple or as complicated as you want them to be. They can create a common place for a team to be informed on what everyone else is doing and how everyone is contributing toward common objectives. As local government continues to embrace transparency and collaboration, these seem like common-sense aids to help achieve these goals.

The future is visual. And maybe even more hands-on than we think.

Michael Davis is Strategic Initiative Manager for Durham County, NC, where he supports strategic planning, innovation, change management, collaboration and capacity building. Michael is a graduate of the Master's of Public Administration Program at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government. Prior to graduate school, Michael was a political reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper in Tennessee. In his free time, Michael plays rock and country music as a community DJ at WXDU, Duke University’s college radio station, and writes occasional record reviews for No Depression. Find him on Twitter: @michaeldwrites

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