One thing Kanban teaches us is the power of visualization. If you visit our office, you will see dozens of task-filled whiteboards, dashboards, paper prototypes and all other sorts of visuals. In
knowledge work, sometimes tasks (and obstacles) can seem invisible. It‘s so much easier to collaborate on them when you can see, touch and move them.
In the past we tried different approaches to visualize what we’re working on, but they all degenerated over time, mostly because they were too complicated. Still, we saw huge value in having some
sort of Portfolio Board for the entire company. So we tried something quite different.
Our latest attempt is called the “Shipping Board,” designed around the metaphor of ships and flow. The idea first came up at the company-wide Retrospective, when a small group sat together and
discussed the flow of large work items. Fridtjof said that there‘s a certain point where the responsibility is handed over from the development teams to the marketing teams “like when a different
captain is entering a ship and the other one is leaving.” This metaphor stuck with us, and the next week we played around with it quite a lot. Then we felt we were ready to design our new shipping
How it works
- Every ship represents a feature or a brand new product.
- Projects need to be of strategic importance for Jimdo and interesting for the whole company in order to become a ship. The litmus test would be: “Would we write a blog post about this or send
a newsletter to all of our customers?”
- Paper boats are rough ideas. We think they might be valuable, but we are not really sure. Paper boats need to have the name of a contact person on them as well as a value proposition.
- Later, when we are committed to the project, the boats are upgraded to plastic ships. At this point it needs to be clear which team is the ship owner.
Once we create a ship, it works its way through the board:
Paper boats (the rough ideas) leave the dock for small test drives. This is when we run experiments, user tests, or build a prototype.
After some time at the dock, ships move left to right through the harbor. The harbor gradually narrows, representing decreasing uncertainty. At first we only know the why: Why do we want to build
this thing (whatever it might become)? Which problem are we going to solve? At this point we often know neither the scope nor the team that will build it—or if it will be built at all.
At this stage, it‘s totally okay that paper boats go in circles as we learn new things. And it’s also okay that some of them will be discarded (in fact this needs to be the case; without being able
to throw out ideas, we could become too risk-averse).
As the ships move to the right, we know more about the “how”: How will the thing we‘re building actually look? How will be build it? Teams get feedback from different people at the company, and as
soon as we commit to building the feature or the product, we replace the little paper boat with a plastic ship.
When a ship enters the narrow gate, there‘s very little uncertainty left. Tech-wise it‘s ready, and we‘ve also done user tests and/or A/B tests and gathered real user feedback. So there should be no
huge surprises. Now it‘s about polishing, as well as finishing the marketing and communication strategy, training the support people, and preparing it for release.
The Open Sea
A ship reaches the open sea when it’s delivered to our (old and new) customers. If it’s a really big ship, we celebrate with a party. Smaller ships get a big round of applause at Teamverløtung (our
weekly all-staff meeting). Once in the open sea, each ship heads towards one of the islands, which represent our most important company-wide goals. All islands are interconnected (e.g. sales and
growth), but every ship has a main destination. We have a couple of islands already, but we need space to add more, so this has to wait for the next iteration of the board.
Every Friday at our Teamverløtung, we present updates on the shipping board to the whole team. A new paper boat might be put on the board and explained. One or two of the ships will move to the
right. Sometimes a ship will be removed from the board. The contact person or the whole team might change. A paper boat might become a plastic ship, etc.
We have used the shipping board for a couple of months now and here are some lessons we've learned so far:
1. The metaphor is really powerful
The very first time we presented this board in the Teamverløtung, something funny happened. One of our data experts presented a topic which was completely unrelated to the board (or at least it
seemed to be). Then he turned to the new board and said: “We cannot prove if this ship will be a great success, but our A/B test has proven that it will not capsize when it enters the open sea.”
People like metaphors and use them in very creative ways.
The metaphor is especially nice because it resonates with our headquarters location near Hamburg’s own harbor, as well as with the whole concept of “flow”, which we all know from the Lean/Kanban
2. Visualization is key
This point cannot be over-stressed. We’ve known about the power of visualization for a very long time, but with the shipping board we still were surprised when we saw this picture:
Wow, we have so many ships in the gate and they all are almost in the open sea. It looks like a traffic jam, so let‘s roll up our sleeves and get them live (instead of building even more new
3. You won't do it right the first time
After we set up the board it took less than a week to discover things we wanted to change. Luckily we were smart enough to start with a rather light-weight (and messy) version and learn on the go
instead of doing a big-upfront design and never changing it again. At this point we are close to setting up version 2.0 of our board.
4. It takes effort to maintain it
When we did a quick survey about what our employees think about the new board, some people responded with comments like: “I think it‘s cool but I am not sure if we can keep it up or if it will
degenerate after a while (like previous attempts).” Indeed it can be time-consuming to maintain this board and someone needs to take ownership, in order to keep it alive.
5. It‘s fun
Some of our employees find the shipping board a little bit childish, and that‘s okay. Others like it very much. When a paper boat becomes a plastic ship, we ask the team who now owns it what kind of
ship it would like to have (“We are a speed boat!” “No, it feels more like a float.”) and they also get the chance to customize it with all kinds of people, animals and different items.
The power of metaphors and stories
Our shipping board helps us visualize our product development and therefore align teams towards our product strategy. The playful design of the board forces us to keep the product strategy as simple
and understandable as possible. One more time we‘ve experienced how powerful metaphors and stories can be. And once again we observe that work and fun do not contradict each other.
Will this work for you as well? Probably not in the exact same way, but you might find a slightly different solution that fits you even better. Let us know!
P.S. In case you're wondering about the details: the ships are attached to the board with little (but very strong) magnets, so they can be moved very quickly. We discovered that gluing magnets to
ships is a science in itself and we had a very steep learning curve with many ships falling off the board:-)
Posted in conjunction with Arne Roock, Jimdo's resident expert on Lean/Kanban, organizational development, and team coaching. You can follow him on Twitter @arneroock.