What does 'make the work visible' and 'go see' mean in a remote world?

Posted on January 14, 2021

We talk about the importance of making work visible and the leadership value of “go see” has on improving decision making throughout the organisation. That’s one thing in colocated teams and when we have relative freedom of movement. But how do you achieve this when everyone is working remotely and physical meetups are not possible?

Pawan Shah, a colleague of mine, shared a great anecdote about Roy Singham and Trevor Mather (who were ThoughtWorks’ Chair and CEO at the time) and their visit to our Bangalore delivery centre. Every day the pair would literally wander around the office floor from team to team observing stand-ups, glancing at their card walls and asking questions. One day, at the end of one particular stand-up, Roy asked “I’ve noticed the build has been red for four days but no one has mentioned fixing it. Isn’t that bad?”. Apparently the question resulted in a heated debate about the causes of the red build, why it hadn’t been addressed in four days and what needed to be done to fix it.

What’s great about this story is it highlights the value of two great leadership practices. The first is known as Management By Walking Around (MBWA), a technique which many great leaders from business, politics and military have sworn by from Steve Jobs to Eisenhower and even Abraham Lincoln! Toyota and Lean stress MBWA (Genchi Genbutsu) as a key principle and daily practice for all leaders known as the Gemba Walk (where Gemba is the ‘actual place’ where work is done).

The second is the importance of Visual Management which links the work, the people and the data ‘at a glance’. We often call this ‘information radiators’. When this scales up we call it Obeya Rooms. It was through both these practices combined that Roy and Trevor were able to engage with the team and create a culture of problem solving. Neither of them had to know anything about the build, what it did or why it was important. They could see that it was red and had been stuck red for four days. The Visual Management systems told them everything they needed to know.

When both of these practices combine it creates a culture of shared problem solving between leadership and those that deliver the value. Leaders can observe the work and build a more accurate picture of what’s really happening. Visibility management creates the shared story between data and people.

In our normal environment of distributed leadership and teams these practices were never easy. Yet we always had the opportunity to visit our offices or talk to other leaders who were daily ‘on the ground’ (or in the Gemba in Leanspeak). Now the obstacles and challenges are greater than ever in the fully distributed realities of COVID. Distributed work also makes Visual Management very challenging as the point is being able to see “assess the status of a situation at a glance”. But as information is digitised across multiple tools (Kanbanize, spreadsheets, Trello, CircleCI, Mural) these become highly fragmented preventing understanding “in a glance”.

To achieve both of these aims with remote work it will undoubtedly mean that informal practices need to become more formalised. For example, scheduling ceremonies on people’s calendars or regularly updating and distributing visual aids via email or chat or pinging the team when a pair switches from coding to an architectural discussion. The challenge we face is to avoid the temptation to reach for Taylorist methods which are more obvious but harmful (such as inspections or heavy management reporting). Finding the right balance will mean that the responsibilities on Leaders and their management duties will need to adapt as much as the teams.

There are some great articles sharing their tips on how to do Remote Gemba in our post-COVID environment. For me, this is a skill I need to learn and practice more, and I will need to work with the teams to find the best opportunities to do this. As a leader it’s important for me to focus on providing mutual benefit by modelling problem solving and not simply fall into the trap of ‘inspecting’ the work (Deming’s 3rd principle of management “Cease dependence on inspection”) or solutionizing (rule of Gemba Walks is to not offer solutions). Due to the nature of remote work, the temptation to fall into these traps is all too easy.