Lego For Project Managers

Simple, immediate and tidy — Lego is the ultimate tool for project planning.

When I started working at Norex, we were using Zoho to schedule projects, assign tasks and track time usage.

Although Zoho is a powerful tool, it wasn’t a good fit.

Between all the Projects and Tasks and Subtasks and Milestones, things got so complicated that the team was just working around the software. They’d track their time in a Google Spreadsheet instead of entering it in the database. Instead of checking someone’s schedule on their Zoho profile, they’d just yell across the room, “Hey, got some time next tomorrow?”.

We tried other digital tools with similar results.

The problem was that to use any tool multiple times a day, it has to be really, really simple. And none of the existing project management software achieved that for us.

We needed something easy to use. Something visual, that told you what you needed to know at a glance.

The Idea

A company called Bit Planner came up with the following manifesto for the perfect project planning system:

It had to be big and visible: looking at a computer monitor or smartphone screen just doesn’t help you see months ahead into the future 
It had to be tactile: we loved the idea of being able to hold a bit of time, and to see and feel the size of time It had to work both online and offline: because we travel a lot, and we want to be able to see what’s going on wherever we are. 
It had to be flexible: everyone in our studio uses their own method for organising themselves, so our solution needed to work regardless of which smartphone, notebook or pen you used. 
It had to look neat and tidy: we loved the idea of structures and grids that can take a mess out of your head and effortlessly force it to be clean and organised. 
Secure: We can’t talk about a lot of our client work, so we needed something that we could put up on the wall without revealing our client names, or project information to casual passers by

Bit Planner suggests that Lego is the ideal medium to fulfill these requirements for a project planning system.

Bit Planner’s Lego-based project calendar

After trying so many bulky software solutions, Bit Planner’s back-to-basics, approach seemed like it might be on the right track. We decided to give it a shot.

The Prototype

Before buying a bunch of Lego (which is surprisingly pricey), we made a prototype version using sticky notes, a bulletin board and thumbtacks.

The prototype follows the Bit Planner model where:

  • Every column represents a day of the week.
  • Every team member has their own row
  • Every project has its own colour, with a project legend on the side.
  • Each rectangle represents a half day

As rudimentary as it looks, this calendar was a huge improvement on the project management software we’d been using.

First of all, it meant the end of daily time tracking. Our Project Manager would take a photo of the board at the end of each month and record what the team worked on in a spreadsheet.

Second, it meant simpler units of time. In Zoho, time got pretty granular with some tasks that were only 15 minutes. This made it more work to plan schedules and it meant days were often divided between a bunch of little tasks.

Our more primitive sticky-note calendar forced all work to be packaged into half-day time chunks. This eliminated the time spent scheduling 15-minute tasks and allowed team members to focus on one project at a time.

The calendar also lets you visualize capacity at a glance. If small tasks or bug fixes come up at the last minute, it’s easy to see who has time to deal with it.

And finally, you get the whole picture. When everyone’s working on different projects, it’s easy to forget what’s going on around you. The new calendar helps you keep in touch with everyone else is up to.

So the sticky-note calendar was a huge improvement. But there were still some problems.

The biggest issue was the materials we were using. The sticky notes were messy-looking, finicky to manage and they made the calendar too bulky to fit more than one week at a time.

Plus we were going through a lot of sticky notes.

Which is how we ended up ordering 1,360 pieces of Pick-A-Brick Lego.

The Lego Version

We rebuilt the project calendar in Lego, using whiteboards to add the supporting labels and project legends.

Although the result didn’t look quite as pretty as Bit Planner’s we knew right away we were on the right track.

And can I just say how wonderful Lego is? Because it is. Unlike most children’s toys, Lego comes in the most basic building units and lets youmake all the rules. Which means it can be used for just about anything.

Anyway.

The Lego was a huge improvement on our sticky-note-and-thumbtack calendar.

The blocks were compact enough that we could plan out three months of work at a time. Even though our PM always had access to this information, it’s much easier to anticipate time crunches or downtime when it’s laid out and colour-coded in front of you. Plus, now the entire team had easy access to the long-term plan.

But the biggest advantage of all? Simply that Lego is easy and delightful to use.

When time tracking meant entering numbers in a database, it never got done.

But because Lego is satisfying to use (in a subtle but significant way), people actually use it, updating what they worked on in a day by adding or shifting Lego pieces. This took a huge load off our Project Manager.

That small change in behaviour is a real testament to what an improved user experience can do.

Next Steps

Of course, the new tool isn’t perfect yet.

For one thing, we’re running out of colours (we’re already using all of the 15 official Lego colours).

And it would definitely help to have an easier way to translate the Lego calendar into a digital version (Bit Planner says they have a solution for this, but haven’t responded to our emails).

The most interesting challenge is going to be figuring out how to incorporate project milestones into the calendar. Because while the calendar instantly captures a team member’s schedule, it’s harder to decipher a project’s status. You can kind of guess from looking at the board when a project is wrapping up, but it would be helpful to have a clearer indication of deadlines like launch dates and design presentations.

But for the most part, the Lego board has been an incredibly efficient way to manage team capacity, track project hours and plan new projects.

It’s simple, intuitive and right at your fingertips.

Plus — extra Lego pieces lying around! Everyone says it’s a great way to develop your creativity.

(Or is that just for kids?)

Let us know what you think! We’d love to hear your thoughts on whether we’re on to something, or just indulging a desire to play with Lego :)