88 ◾ A Factory of One
Figure 4.4 Software production kanban. (From http://bit.ly/pqv9VV)
Visual Management ◾ 89
notes to the desk and computer, and install the latest whiz-
bang iPhone productivity applications. Intuitively, they realize
that they need some visual cues to help them manage their
work. They resist putting anything away because “if it’s out of
sight, it’s out of mind.” But with visual cues scattered every-
where, it’s impossible to stay on top of all the information
ﬂows and spot any problems. Where do you look for what you
need? Ironically, by keeping everything in sight, it all eventu-
ally becomes invisible.
The key to effective visual controls is to create a system
that makes your work—your projects, your ongoing commit-
ments, and your responsibilities—easily visible so that you
Figure 4.5 Purchasing group kanban.
90 ◾ A Factory of One
can, at a glance, know what’s supposed to be done. Visual
management for the knowledge worker is no different (con-
ceptually) from visual management for a factory worker: You
should be able to see your production targets and your actual
Why All Those To-Do Lists Don’t Work
Fact: The amount of work you have to do is inﬁnite. Even if
you were physically able to work 24 hours a day, every day,
you’d never get to the bottom of your to-do list (or your e-mail
inbox). There will always be one more meeting to attend, one
more problem to solve, or one more e-mail to write. Not to
put too negative a spin on the situation, but clearing that list is
truly a Sisyphean chore.
Figure 4.6 Family kanban. (From http://bit.ly/ruSJP6)
Visual Management ◾ 91
Fact: The time you have to do this inﬁnite amount of work
is quite clearly ﬁnite. Whether you work 40, 50, or 110 hours
per week, there is a limit to how much you can accomplish
each week. Just as there’s a physical limit to the throughput on
a manufacturing line and a limit to how many jets can take off
from LaGuardia airport each hour, there’s a limit to how much
work you can do each week.
Given this reality, you have to treat your time like you treat
your money: as a limited resource that must be budgeted. And
just as you ﬁrst budget money for the essential things in life—
food, shelter, peanut M&Ms—you’ve got to budget time for
your most important work.
The thing is, you can’t properly allocate time to your really
important stuff if you only log your work in a to-do list or a
pile of Post-it notes. Neither of them captures or displays the
vital bits of information you need: When is each task due?
How long will it take? And the corollary: how much time do
you have available? If you can’t answer these questions, you
can’t intelligently decide whether you can afford to spend time
ﬁlling out employee reviews, revamping the nurse stafﬁng
schedule, or doing trust falls and ropes courses at the execu-
tive team-building retreat. Until you can see the time required
to do X, you can’t assess the opportunity cost of doing it.
Because when you’re doing X, you’re quite clearly not doing Y.
So, what’s the answer? How do you make your work visible
so you can ensure that you’re getting the right stuff done?
Living in the Calendar
At some point in the past year (and probably even more often
than that), you’ve probably complained that you’re always
being reactive rather than proactive. The reason is simple: It’s
because you constantly “live in your inbox” by keeping it front
and center and let the incoming messages drive your work. In