Informative Workspaces: Using White Boards to Increase Productivity and Build Trust

A “whiteboard culture” helps teams collaborate, improves the development and testing process, and – oh yeah – also secures long term savings.

Effective communication attained through transparency is a sure way to build or improve trust in any organization. When people see that we have nothing to hide, get visibility into our operations, and assess real progress rather than “reported” one – this builds trust, and creates cohesion.

I spoke with one CTO who builds transparency into the company culture – using, of all things, the prosaic office white board. Although Michael Vax’s company went through the recession as did all of us, the management team at Elastic Path considered the influx of talent on the market as an opportunity, and was hiring during the entire recession.  These guys truly followed the “buy low” philosophy.  Good for them!

I spoke with CTO Michael Vax about his philosophy. While he has since left the company, they are on good terms and continue to implement the techniques he describes here:

Michael Vax: Utmost transparency helps us achieve three main goals: communication, better team organization, and organization of each employee. We believe that this is a huge source of real savings.

Eugene Nizker: How do you tap into this well of savings at Elastic Path?

MV: First of all, we try to surround ourselves with visible information. There is so much information around!  Make it available to everyone.  Every employee sees that the company trusts him/her with information. This results in higher team morale, which leads to better financial results. Business departments see that IT has nothing to hide. The result is a higher level of trust between departments, which leads to more effective and efficient cooperation. Customers visiting the company see that we are very open with them too. This immediately gives us an edge over the competition.

EN: OK, I’m sold, but give me some practical advice!  How do I make this information visible?

MV: The most valuable information is all around you.  First of all, communicate your goals.  The goals of every department in our company are on the poster.  All we need to do to communicate progress is to put “I’m done!” sticker to a goal.
KPIs

Rocks Walls

EN: Yes, I remember visiting the office of another company, 1-800-Got-Junk?  The annual goal of every employee was displayed on the wall for everyone to see.  Starting from the CEO!

MV: Another board communicates dates. This board includes not only business events, but, for example, birthdays of team members.

Company Calendar

A more complex board represents the states of our relationships with our clients. It looks like an ancient sailing map with ships that represent every client.  We “navigate” every ship through the rough waters to the safe harbour – from first communication with a potential client to routine operations we do for them.

Customer Journey

To make this more relevant we mapped each stop on the journey to the account status in SalesForce.

Company Happy Place mapped to Salesforce

EN: What if several teams are involved in a project?  How do they communicate the project status to each other?

MV: We have cross-team the project status board for this.  Every team shows what it’s doing today and what it’s going to do next week.  This works much better than weekly status emails that nobody reads:

cross-team board

We also use standard burn down charts.

EN: Well, I think burn up charts communicate more, but that’s OK. Do you also communicate long term progress related to a product?  Something that goes across product iterations?

MV: Yes, we turned the entire divider wall into a communication vehicle.

A smart use for a divider wall

It shows the release timeline. It also shows current design schema, the task the team is working on, and our backlog – all in one area.  This really helps people grasp the general status of a product and understand where the technology arm is in its journey.  Of course, this does not replace detailed design diagrams for a particular component that one can see on our walls as well.
Tagging Framework

EN: People often ask me how to keep track and to communicate requirements for large scale projects. How do you do this and how do you achieve transparency in communicating requirements?

MV: On one of the walls we posted bundled set of requirements.

Bundled set of requirements

Our requirements discussion meetings happen right here, around this poster.  But this would require a bit more detailed explanation.

EN: OK, this is impressive.  Now, what do you have for the QA department?  I’m sure they are not left behind.

MV: Of course not!  QA department is very important in our culture, and they wouldn’t tolerate being left behind.  We have several boards that help see what’s going on there.  For example, a special whiteboard reflects status of different types of testing that is performed on the upgrades for different versions of our product. The test environments are very complex, but this board allows grasping the entire picture in one gulp, so to speak.  It also contains instructions related to building test environments.

Upgrade test environment

EN: It looks like you have a truly “paperless” office and still manage to communicate a lot.

The video of Michael Vax’s presentation “A Guided Tour of the Whiteboard Culture” can be found here.

There is one area, however, that potentially can create a stumbling block or two even for Elastic Path.  I’m talking about product documentation.  For example, do you create design documents for your product? How do you reflect and document your progress?

MV: Did you see the design diagrams on the walls in our office?  When the time comes I ask the Technical Writer to make a picture of this diagram. This picture goes into the design document. That’s it.

EN: This is really interesting!  One key question that I always ask when people want to start a document is, “How are you going to keep it current?”  If I don’t hear a convincing answer, I don’t authorise creating a document.  Indeed, it’s waste of time now and a potential trap in the future.  Too many times, I witnessed failures because a team tried to develop a product based on outdated documentation.  Once I ran a stat on a document library of one of my clients.  The stat came with about 300,000 documents.  Three hundred thousand!  Almost a thousand for every employee in the technology department.  Obviously, the majority of these documents were never read. What a waste!

MV: Exactly.  You know, I think the best way to help the team organize its information is to buy a whiteboard and place it in their area.  Believe me, a clean whiteboard will not be tolerated longer than an hour!  The team will find the best use for it.

EN: Michael, some people can see the flip side of your openness.  Does your openness make you an easy target for your competitors?

MV: We are not afraid of it.  Our open culture is what makes us strong.  Catch us if you can!  You would need to change your culture in order to do this, make it open.

Indeed, walking Elastic Path’s office means walking through information. It’s everywhere.  Michael Vax calls this “a whiteboard culture”.  And one really feels the trust in the office, it is almost palpable.

You know what else I like about what Elastic Path is doing? Their technique does not require fancy tools or expensive consultants.  No capex, practically no opex!  All it requires is thinking execs.  Michael Vax is one of them.  This company saves big, and all without drastic budget cuts or devastating layoff rounds.

An earlier iteration of this article originally appeared on CIO.com. This article is reposted with the author’s permission. (And, if we want to be honest about it, his enthusiastic participation.)

Comments

  1. Great article and interview. Love this quote, “Their technique does not require fancy tools or expensive consultants. No capex, practically no opex! All it requires is thinking execs. Michael Vax is one of them. This company saves big, and all without drastic budget cuts or devastating layoff rounds.”

    This is how it should be. We’ve gotten to the point where we rely so much on technology that we get away from using our minds.

    Thanks for the share!

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