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The Biological Basis for Visual Management.

By May 15, 2012No Comments

How do we see ?

A lens in our eye focuses light onto our retina, our retina send signals to our brain, and our brain spends a huge percentage of its capacity, by far the largest of any brain function, just to decode those signals and recognise what’s in front of us.  We look for patterns, seeing lines and movement; and we learn over time from when we are babies how to interpret those things and figure out what we’re looking at. We also constantly scan; if our eye is rigidly fixed in one spot (through painful apparatus) the image disappears.

These basic biological mechanics are the reason that the cockpit of nearly all aircraft look something like this:

An early 747 cockpit.

Lots of analog dials, rather than digital readouts.  Dials work better than digits because our visual system lets us scan and notice when things are out of place; we instinctively zero in on things that are changing.  We’re also good at figuring out the direction and rate of change with analog dials. Experienced observers can often estimate where a dial will stop based on watching it while it’s still moving. Even in modern aircraft where digital displays are replacing analog dials, the key instruments are always present as analog representations.  The peripheral systems are monitored by computer software rather than the pilot.

Digital readouts, while undeniably more accurate, require much more mental energy to read and process. We just find it much harder to take a snap shot of what’s normal, and notice what’s different, when faced with a panel of 40 numbers vs 40 dials. This is also why we tend to skim reports, and zero in on the graphics, graphs and pie charts rather than tables of figures or words. We decide what to look at from the visual cues, and then check the relevant reference data only for the more interesting items to work out how and why.

So as we apply this understanding of our visual system to an Agile context we can see how Agile boards are very suited our our natural strengths. We’re good at noticing when things change, move or something looks out of place.

Boards also give us a good way to use our instinctive ‘gut’ feedback system – over time teams and even people outside the team get very good at knowing what a good ‘on track’ iteration or cycle looks like – and equally when things are off track.  It’s often not as simple as one or two cards or tasks, but noticing the natural weighting and flow of the system changing over time.  It’s a worrying thing then to hear from a team talking about their Agile board – ‘It works ok, but doesn’t change very much’.  It’s also why habits like putting fences and rows on cards that are stuck is important; it reminds us to check back later when we naturally gravitate to the shiny distraction of the things that are moving instead.

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