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.

No votes yet.
Please wait...