Visual Management – Creating A Kanban Multiverse

This is an article I originally wrote for the Management 3.0 site in 2010. As it is no longer available there, I am republishing it here in its original form other than a few minor edits.

At the Lean and Kanban Exchange in London in 2009, I was chatting with David Anderson and David Laribee about the possibilities for Kanban software tooling, and how a great piece for software could enable the visualisation of multiple dimensions within a two dimensional space. The right application could allow easy shifting between multiple perspectives to give different views on the various dimensions. This got me thinking, and led me to the concept a multiverse. This post is a write-up of the presentation I was due to give at the Lean Software and Systems Conference in Atlanta, before Eyjafjallajokull intervened. The associated Prezi can also be found on my blog.

Wikipedia defines as multiverse as “the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes that together comprise everything that physically exists: the entirety of space and time, all forms of matter, energy and momentum, and the physical laws and constants that govern them”. How does that map onto the concept of a kanban board? A kanban multiverse could be “the hypothetical set of multiple possible kanban boards that together comprise everything that physically could be visualised: the entirety of scope and time, all forms of work type, status and flow, and the organisational laws and constants that govern them”.

What would make a great kanban board to create this kanban multiverse? That led me to look into ideas around visual management and data visualisation, and think about what the data variants might be that could be visualised.

Visual Management

In a TED Talk Tom Wujec talks about 3 ways that the brain creates meaning. Firstly, visualisation creates a mental model because of the way that different areas of the brain process different visual inputs such as shape, size, and location. The greater the readability of a kanban board, the greater the impact of this visual processing. Secondly, interaction enriches the mental model further through engagement. The greater the usability of a kanban board, the more it will be interacted with. Finally, persistence allows the mental model to be part of an augmented memory which can evolve over time. The greater the visibility of a kanban board, the more accessible it will be as augmented memory. Thus kanban boards become such powerful tools when they create mental models through being visual, interactive and persistent.

This leads to the idea of boundary objects. Brian Marick wrote an introductory paper in which he talks about communities and practice and interest. A community of practice is formed around a work discipline, while a community of interest is formed around a common problem or concern. Communities of interest are made up of members of different communities of practice. A boundary object provides a means for communities of interest to communicate across their different practices, and a kanban board, through creating a shared mental model, can be a boundary object. This is because the mental model is created collectively and collaboratively, and helps clarify the meaning of what the board is representing.

Brian lists several properties of a boundary object which can be useful to bear in mind when building a kanban board; it should be a common point of reference for the community of interest, represent different meaning to different members of the community and help translation between the meanings, support coordination and alignment of the work within the community, be a plastic working agreement which evolves with the communities practices, and address different concerns of the community members simultaneously.

Another relevant set of ideas to visual management are those raised by Dan Pink when he talks about the surprising science of motivation. In his book Drive he says that rather than the carrot and stick approach of extrinsic motivation, a better approach is intrinsic motivation, which consists of three elements; autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy, or the “desire to direct our own lives”, is achieved when team members can see what needs doing, understand the working agreements, and choose what they should do. Mastery or “the urge to get better and better at something that matters” is achieved through being able to interact with the kanban board to evolve and improve it. Purpose, or “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves”, is achieved when the persistence of the kanban board makes it clear what the value of the work is and why it is being done.


In his classic book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, Edward Tufte introduces a set of principles for the effective display of data. Given that a kanban board can visualise multiple pieces of data, it is useful to review some of these ideas.

Tufte talks about a number of different types of graphical designs. Time series is probably the most common, where time is along the horizontal axis, and another data type along the vertical. This is probably the least relevant design, because a kanban board is typically a snapshot of the current status. Similarly, a space time narrative, which tells a story in a spatial dimension over time, may not be the most obvious choice. It does raise the question of visualising the narrative of the work over time though, which could be interesting. Maps also introduce some different ideas. What would a kanban board look like it showed the terrain of a project, and where each piece of work was on that terrain? The most common form kanban board is probably a relational one, where the two axes show different types of information, such as scope and status. Tufte refers to relational graphics as being more sophisticated and interestingly, from a Lean and Toyota perspective claims that Japanese publications tend to have more sophisticated graphics.

Most of the book is spent discussing ways of improving the way that data is presented; specifically, maximising data ink, reducing chart junk, and improving data density. Data ink is the ink that actually represents data. While kanban boards generally use more than just ink, the principle holds true for making sure that as far as possible, anything on the board should hold information. The corollary to this is that anything which isn’t data ink is chart junk. Grids, redundant data, or decorations and embellishments for aesthetics may create noise which masks the real story. Finally, data density is the amount of data within the given space. The eye can take in a high precision of detail, so by maximising the data ink and being clever with multi-functioning graphical elements, it is possible to visualise many dimensions in a small space.


This leads us to the decision of how we can represent a kanban multiverse. Each dimension that can be visualised is what Edward Tufte calls a variant, and a kanban board is a multi-variant display. What are the variants, and how can they be displayed, using maximum data ink, minimum chart junk, and at a greatest density? This post will not provide the answers, but will I hope provide some ideas for thinking about some alternatives and creating innovative solutions.

The variants will typically be the usual project management interest, but can include the concerns of any member of the community of interest. As a starter, there are the popular “iron triangle” variants of scope, time, resource and quality. Other common variants are things like priority, status, issues, risks, constraints, dependencies and assumptions. More recently, teams have been talking in terms of variants such as capacity and demand, not to mention value and other economic points.

To visualise all these variants we can use a number of techniques. Properties such as size, colour, format, location and alignment can all create multi-functioning graphical elements to achieve a high data density. For a physical board, material and texture can add further depth. What would the implications be of showing quality with colour, or dependencies with material?


A kanban board is more than simply a task board, or a story board, or even a team board. It’s a visual management tool to create a shared mental model amongst a community of interest. As such, sophisticated display techniques should be used to create meaning and motivation through collaboration and communication.

Thanks to Xavier Quesada Allue who has written much more about techniques for creating kanban boards on his Visual Management Blog, and who I have had many interesting conversations about ideas for creating kanban boards.

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Visualising Kanban Dimensions with TIPs

Following on from my post describing a Kanban Visualisation TIP (Token, Inscription, Placement), this post gives some examples of how to visualise the various dimensions of a Kanban Multiverse. The goal is not to define any ‘correct’ ways of visualising information, but to show that there are a variety of useful approaches and hopefully inspire further new creative approaches. As such, I have listed at least 3 techniques for each approach and tried to include some variety.

The dimensions I have used are the usual project management details, but can include the concerns of any member of a team or community. Let me know what other dimensions or data variants could be added, and what interesting techniques have you used to visualise them.


Scope represents the content of the work associated with an element.

  • The size of the token can indicate the amount of work, with larger cards involving more functionality.
  • An inscription can describe the scope, most commonly with a written annotation.
  • A linkage can reference further details about the scope stored elsewhere.


Time represents the when work starts and ends and how long it has been in progress for.

  • Colour can indicate the aging of tokens, where lighter cards are newer, and older cards are darker.
  • Graphics can also be used to represent aging, with a dot or other symbol, being added for each day. Different colour dots can further distinguish between what state the work is in for each day.
  • A simple annotation of aging, or key dates can be written, using formatting to distinguish different information.
  • Where a particular date or service-level is being targeted, an annotation can be added at key points in time, such as 50%, 90% and 100%+.
  • The horizontal placement within a column can indicate time in progress, with the card moving further right each day.


People represent who the work is being done by (as opposed to resources!).

  • Colour can identify the ownership of a token for small teams, or a primary functional or disciple group for larger teams.
  • An avatar can be used as a graphic inscription to identify ownership.
  • Horizontal alignment in swim-lanes can also group tokens and associate them with people or sub groups.


Cost represents the estimated effort required to complete the work.

  • The size of the token can indicate the cost of work, with larger cards involving more effort.
  • Colour can indicate the cost of the work, especially when using relative sizes or buckets, with larger cards representing bigger pieces of work.
  • An annotation could be written on the token to indicate the estimated cost, such as a relative points, or t-shirt size.


Quality represents how well the work is being done.

  • Colour can indicate whether the token represents value demand or failure demand. More failure demand indicates lower quality.
  • An adornment can indicate the grading of a piece of work, where a lower grade (e.g. F) represents lower fidelity work, and a higher grade (e.g. A+) represents higher fidelity work.
  • An annotation of the number of tests and/or defects can indicate the level of testing that has happened for a piece of work.
  • The vertical placement of a token can indicate quality, with higher placement representing higher quality.


Priority represents how important the work is.

  • Colour can indicate priority if using an enumerated scheme such as MoSCoW, where a mix of priorities is used to manage risk.
  • The vertical placement of a token can indicate its priority, with high placement representing higher priority.
  • Horizontal alignment in swim-lanes can also group tokens by Class of Service to indicate prioritization policies.


Status represents what the progress of the work is.

  • Vertical alignment in columns can indicate the current phase of a piece of work.
  • The rotation of a token, such as making it portrait rather than landscape, can indicate that the status of the work has changed significantly, or that it is “done” for its current phase.
  • An adornment can be used to represent key status types such as “blocked” or “done”.


Capability represents the amount of work that can be worked on at any time, managed through work in process limits.

  • Where tokens are grouped through alignment in rows and columns, an adornment of the grouping can indicate the amount of work than can be taken in within the group.
  • Alignment groups can also have a fixed number of “slots” which indicate the amount of work that can be taken on within the group.
  • Graphical adornments such as avatars for team members can be limited and attached to tokens to indicate who is working on what.


Demand represents the amount and type work being requested. Demand could show failure and value demand types such as defects and features, classes of service, such as regular, fixed date or expedite, or investment allocations such as portfolio items.

  • Colour can indicate the different types of demand for a relatively small number of possibilities.
  • Shape or material can also indicate demand, and can be combined with colour to show combinations of work type, class of service and investment allocation.
  • Horizontal alignment in swim-lanes can also group tokens by demand type.


Value represents the benefit of completing the work

  • Colour can indicate the value where a granular enumeration is being used such as High, Medium and Low.
  • Size can also indicate an enumerated value, with larger tokens representing more value.
  • A formatted annotation can be written to indicate the value where a more precise number is being used.
  • The vertical placement of a token can indicate its value, with high placement representing higher value.

Externals: Issues, Risks, Constraints, Dependencies, Assumptions

These are all factors which are external to the represented work, but which impact it in some way. Issues represent things that might impact the progress of the work. Risks represent things that are impacting the progress of the work. Constraints represent things that limit the way in which the work can be completed. Dependencies represent things that must also be done as part of the work. Assumptions represent things that are expected to happen in order to complete the work.

  • Adornments can be used to represent these external factors, with colour being used to distinguish between the different types.
  • A separate token can represent each external factor, with colour being used to distinguish between the different types.
  • The placement of separate tokens relative to the main work item can show the relationship of external factors, either horizontally or vertically as sub-states, or in a more free-form manner such as mind-map.
  • A linkage can reference further details about the external factor stored elsewhere.
  • A annotation can be written to provide more details about external factors. Formatting can help identify the different types.
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Exploring the Kanban Multiverse at Agile2010

I ran a workshop on “Exploring the Kanban Universe” at Agile2010 with Xavier Quesada Allue. The premise was to setup an example case study and lead participants through visualising different aspects of a project – the different multiverses – over a number of iterations.  Below are pictures of the final boards from the different teams. We encouraged people to think ‘outside the box’ and try and move away from traditional rows and columns approaches.

The highlight for me was the circular design that one of the teams came up with. I thought it was a great solution to the challenge of avoiding kanban boards appearing to show a linear process. With a circular design, a work item can loop round the circle multiple times, with the distance from the centre indicating closeness to completion, and different quadrants indicating the primary focus of work such as analysis, dev, test etc. This was the nicest example of a board as a ‘map’ as opposed to a ‘relational’ representation.

One thing that was reinforced for me was that a Kanban Board should not try to visualise absolutely everything. Its should have just enough information to signal where the issues are, and where the team should look to find out more. In other words it should be able to “point to the gemba”. Thanks to Harada Kiro to reminding me of this after the session. In future runs of the workshop we’d like to try starting with a blank canvas each iteration to avoid teams feeling constrained by trying to show too much and having to build upon previous designs.

I also gave a talk on the subject at the Lean & Kanban Conference in Belgium last week after which Mary Poppendieck pointed out that I’d slipped into referring to some visual management designs as kanban boards when they strictly weren’t because they didn’t limit WIP. Visual Management is a large part of a Kanban System, but not every Visual Management board is a Kanban board.

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