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Why is Transparency your Magic Wand?

I'm going to let you in a little consulting trick. Create ways for your clients to make their work visible and their productivity magically improves. Hint: you don't need to a be a consultant to do this.

Why does 'Transparency to the Work' (also known as Visibility or Visualization) have such a profound impact? How can you use Transparency to get immediate results?

Years ago I was asked to be the interim manager over a small help desk. The team was miserable, they weren't meeting their target turnaround times and they had piles of tickets unaddressed. This particular help desk addressed issues that affected people's pay, so you can imagine there was a lot of pressure. It had been like this for years and the team just accepted it as 'the way things are'. Knowing nothing about Transparency, and simply to get a handle on the situation, I put the tickets into an aging report - today, 30, 60, 90+. I asked the team to focus on today's tickets first and when they were done, start at the oldest and work backwards.

To my utter surprise, the glut of old tickets cleared up and within weeks we were keeping to are target turnaround times. Just between us, I had no idea that was going to happen!

The team brightened up considerably. They started going to lunch together. And what they told me was this 'We used to come in and just work in a dark tunnel with no end in sight. Now we know what what is important, and we work through it. We even help each other if we need to.'

Warning: I have used this technique many times since then and I often get the same reaction from upper management. "Oh the numbers are wrong" or "She's missing the mark, a list isn't going to solve our big problems". Once you do it enough times, you just laugh.

How can you safely wield Transparency to the work to help your team?

A Kanban board is a great way to visualize work. But if your team isn't ready for that, there are some super-simple things you can do in the meantime.

  • Make a Priority List in when there are unclear or conflicting priorities Whenever people have different priorities, there is waste. Transparency helps them sync up their priorities, and also, amazingly leads to people helping each other. If I can see what your priority is, then I can figure out how to help, with minimal work on my part. I've been in meetings where people have said haughtily, "Well, I have other priorities!" Great, now please tell us what they are? Agile teams use a backlog for this. When new work comes in, the backlog drives a discussion around where the priority fits. The key is that there's a tangible, visual representation of the work for everyone to anchor on. You don't need to be Agile to create a shared priority list.

  • Make a 'Ride-Share Board' when dependencies are overwhelming You remember ride-share boards in college right? 'Saturday need a ride to NYC' and someone else posts and index card saying 'Driving to Boston Friday.' When teams have a lot of dependencies it helps to make them visible. Not all of them, just the ones that you need now. Traditional models use complicated Gantt charts to manage dependencies over time. No one can read them and no one cares. You need code for a tax engine? You have HTML skills and a few hours to spare? You need buy-in from upper management? Post it up there! Keep it simple, post on a board what you need right now.

  • Visualize Blockers What's blocking you from meeting the target? Write it down and make it visible. There's nothing worse than hearing a seemingly banal comment in a meeting, 'I need the API for the A5201-C' only to find out later that this was a blocker for the whole project! And that person says "I told you that I needed the API". Yeah but you didn't say it was a blocker!!! Visualization makes it 100% clear that this is going to jeopardize the outcome. If you're in an office, get it up on the wall. If you are virtual, get it in some collaboration tool or a shared spreadsheet. Just put it someplace where everyone can see it. Make it a habit to review blockers at every meeting. Agile teams generally use a Kanban board for this by sticking a visible indicator like a big red X on the blocked work item. You don't need to be Agile to borrow this practice.

  • Visualize Work in Progress Being able to see work in progress, is the secret sauce of visualization. Getting all the work someplace where everyone can see what's happening NOW, truly sparks our human nature toward collaboration. It also curbs our human nature of taking on too much work. By seeing how much work we have in progress, and how much is getting done, we can manage our focus and throttle the number of things we start on. This the value of a Kanban board.

These are things that worked for me. What worked for you?

And God said ‘let there be light’, and there was light.

— Genesis 1:3

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