Distributed Teams and Visual Management

In the text so far, the focus has primarily been on co-located teams. For the model line transformation, we recommended earlier to use a group that resides in the same location. It is much easier to guide your first lean transformation when everyone is in the same setting than to deal with multiple locations, time zones, cultural norms, etc. This approach also allows you to practice using lean tools and principles to radically change the way the group operates. You are not simply implementing some techniques and running a training class; you are also fundamentally altering the way work gets done. Implementing tools and techniques is the easy part. The hard part is changing the collective mindset of the group to affect lasting cultural change. Adding in the complexity of a distributed workforce from day one increases complexity and might be too much to ask.

However, this may not be your reality. You may be dealing with offshore development, a data center in a different building from your primary group, or a virtual workplace. You are probably wondering if visual management still applies. It does, but this requires some creativity and flexibility.

We have found that visual management is most effective when it can be viewed in its original form by everyone on the team and cannot be turned off. By this we mean it is physically in the workspace—not on a monitor, not in a report, not on a Sharepoint site. Electronic forms of visual management can be turned off at any time and easily ignored. But a physical board smacks you in the face every time you walk by it saying, “Look at me.” So what can be done to mimic this in a distributed world?

If your situation is just a few remote locations, simply replicate the visuals in those locations. This can be done using low-cost labor such as interns or entry-level staff whose standard work includes keeping the visual system in sync. Any place where you have multiple team members in different locations, try this approach. At the time of this writing there are also a number of promising electronic physical boards that can stay in sync across geographic distance with near instantaneous updates. They are only promising at this point because they currently do not offer the flexibility of a physical board created with markers, tape, magnets, and cards, but the technology is rapidly closing the gap and it is worth keeping an eye on them for the future.

If you have a lone wolf or two on the team, a different approach is required. In this situation try low-cost/low-effort solutions first. Before the standup each day, send a high-resolution picture of the boards to the team member so that he or she can use it as his or her own personal visual board for the standup and work of the day. Create a process whereby this team member’s updates make it to the board in real time. A handheld USB web cam works as well in many cases. Other, more expensive options include investing in video conferencing or telepresence technologies that emulate the in-person experience, but so far these are not particularly effective. With a little creativity you can bring distributed team members into the collaborative workspace you are creating.

Don’t let the current situation of a geographically dispersed team hold you back from implementing lean. You are only limited by your imagination in applying the tools and principles in this situation. Over the long term you should evaluate the relative benefits you get from a separated team that collaborates virtually versus the benefits of a co-located team.

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