The Physical Dashboard

or ‘Looking, but not Seeing

The software engineers I’ve worked with over the years are generally really clever and very adept at getting their machines to do work for them. I suppose that’s almost a definition of the job, but what started back in the day as doing clever stuff with cron jobs has evolved into automated this and continuous that, with complex infrastructure supporting it all.  The automation shift has surpassed the simple thinking of ‘if you have to do it three times, then automate it’ and moved on to actually enabling things that were previously impossible to achieve.

Along with this awesome power to automate also comes the ability to report on that which is automated, resulting in flat screens hanging on walls scrolling through colourful charts, maps of hierarchical test results, deployment trends and so on.

It’s all great, but I think we’re in danger of losing something vital.

I’m reminded of an evening when a friend offered to take me for a flight in his micro-light aircraft. We drove to a field and he unloaded what looked to me like a bag of lightweight scaffold poles and an old tent, but proved to be the wing of this dubious machine. After completing the build, Trevor very methodically went around the aircraft looking and touching everything, wobbling pins, testing joints, moving to different angles. He was really tactile, seemingly getting as much information through his fingers as from any other sense.  This approach intrigued me and as we chatted Trevor said that he had difficulty in seeing and not just looking, so used touch as a mechanism to help him retain his focus – keeping him in ‘seeing’ mode and not dropping back into the lower-energy ‘looking’ state.  

I think our automated dashboards, jira-generated charts and electronic kanban boards can often leave us in the ‘looking’ state – we’ve saved the repetitive effort of generating the charts ourselves, but at the expense of not seeing the data, realising it’s implications, spotted the emerging trend and adapting to it’s portents.  

To really see that data I find it helps to engage more senses than you employ when you just glance at a screen.  Something physical, like having to transcribe a data point onto a board, makes more connections, fires more synapses.  A team takes more notice of a chart when a co-worker grabs a marker and plots the next data-point in front of them.

I’m not talking about a big, repetitive effort, no way – that really is what the automation is for!  What I’m talking about is identifying a few (<5) metrics that are valuable to you and your team right now and physically plotting them daily on a board somewhere. You’ll soon have a picture that’s telling you more of a story than the data points alone and the team will be more engaged with that story than if it were unfolding without their physical involvement.  Keep checking the metric is giving you value and change it when needed. Keep checking that the effort required to maintain your physical dashboard is minimal, but not zero. Resist the urge to automate it to the point where you look at it but don’t see it any more.

A final thought for this post – you don’t need to limit yourself to the dry but technically relevant metrics. Why not include something more fun too (like my Sharpie ratio)? Coffee consumption, stand-up time, office temperature and so on could all have a place and may just provide the nudge needed to push you towards a better place.  I worked with a team once that plotted their ‘Bikini Alert State‘ regularly and a transition to a higher state of ‘alert’ (maybe we had some defects coming in) was accompanied by a tangible focus and responsiveness that I couldn’t explain through numbers alone.

Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools, as someone once said.

One thought on “The Physical Dashboard

  1. […] Use tools like your ‘Definition of Done’  & ‘Definition of Ready’ wisely, keep them fresh and relevant.  They’ll help you stay in the conscious and prevent looking but not seeing. […]


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