Bringing work home: visual management for the family

Product Management Productivity Tip 2

My life can be messy.  My wife and I both work and share the household responsibilities, including managing the lives of two young children.  Because of our busy schedules our routine is usually one of exception, and we may not see one another on any given morning, evening or longer.  The typical organizational techniques and lists that might have worked if only one of us was responsible for the children were not effective.  We reached the limits of our crude system of keeping information in our heads, our personal organizers, and a small wall calendar.  Lunches didn’t getting packed, assignments weren’t turned in, library books became overdue, and even a couple of birthday parties were missed. We needed to change our system, and I turned to the Agile/Lean principle of visual management.

I decided to see if I could make a task board to manage our lives.  The place where most of our daily decisions for the children happen are in the kitchen.  This is where we congregate for meals, pack lunch boxes, and load and unload backpacks.  So I cleared off our largest kitchen wall, took out some blue masking tape, and started laying out the board.  It is over 6 feet wide and 3 feet tall.


Agile Project Board







Figure: 6′ wide kitchen task board to track all our family todo’s

The nature of our work to manage our household is that most tasks are completed within a single session, usually a few minutes.  So the idea of cycle time, work in progress, or velocity isn’t appropriate.  Most of the challenge is just ensuring the right stuff happens at the right time on any given day.  The task board has large areas for each day of the week Monday – Sunday, a section for on-deck and in progress projects like homework and fundraising forms that do span multiple days, and a whiteboard section for adhoc notes and the feeding schedule for our goldfish.  When a new task is identified, my wife or I write it on an index card and tape it to the wall.  The basic info is the actual task, the time (if there is one), and the owner if needed.  The spaces are large enough to also tape up forms and homework assignments that need to be completed on a specific day.

I’m pleased to announce the board is working well.  We have only missed one or two deadlines since starting to use the board and the oversight was quickly identified.  The biggest benefit for me is that when I’m in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner or making breakfast the next morning, I can look up at the wall and see what needs to happen that day or the next even if I’m across the room.  My wife can place a task on the board and know I will see it and vice versa.  We no longer have to keep things in our heads or remember to tell each other about something that needs to go to school or about an exception to the regular routine.  Nor do we have to deliberately check a master calendar or folder to see if something needs to be done.  The management system is in our path rather than requiring extra effort to use it.

The main drawback is it is big and some (even many) would say it lacks visual appeal.  I can’t refute this point.  But I can say it works and my family’s life is running much smoother for it. This illustrates another Agile/Lean point, people usually underperform because of the management system in place, rather than for a lack of ability. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Toyota chairman Fujio Cho:

“We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems.”

The simple household change to visualize our tasks has taken error rates practically to zero!

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