“Silly gestures” — Why physical Scrum boards and clothespins work

I’m a big proponent of co-located Scrum teams using physical boards instead of virtual ones. This approach comes with both advantages and disadvantages that the team needs to be aware of.

Today I’d like to focus on one important reason to prefer physical boards: the act of physically moving cards that represent the work is an important part of reinforcing behavior, improving communication, and reducing errors.

At NewBoCo, we’ve been building the nonprofit organization using agile from the beginning. So far, we’ve always used physical boards. We’ve also used a technique I learned at Geonetric in which you put a classic wooden clothespin with your name on it on the tasks you’re working on that day.

High tech? Only when it’s advantageous to our mission. For us, physical cards, Post-it notes and clothespins work better than software.

Three reasons we like physical boards & clothespins

  • The physical movement at standups reinforces team accountability: it’s easier for team members to see and critique all of the work the team is doing. The physical motion makes clear to the team what you’re working on — you literally just “claimed” it as you put your clothespin on it. If, say, you don’t move a card at all, it’s painfully obvious to the team. If you move a card backward, it’s very visible. This drives important conversations in the team about potential problems every day at your standup.
  • The clothespins makes it clear who’s working on what, at a glance. Anyone can walk up to any board and see exactly who’s claimed which tasks, at any time. You can see all of the work that’s completed, in progress, or soon to be done at a glance, and you can do it for any one of your co-located teams. I’ve found that most software products don’t make it this easy.
  • The clothespins are a WIP limiter — or least a reminder that you can only take on so much work in a day. There’s only a handful of clothespins. If you’re running out, that’s an easy indicator that you have a problem and you’re taking on too much work-in-progress. Most software doesn’t limit you in this way.

It turns out, there’s a fourth reason

Today I was reading about a Japanese concept called shisa kanko. Rail workers in Japan use physical pointing gestures as a way to reinforce behaviors that dramatically improve safety.

Train conductors, drivers and station staff play an important role in the safe and efficient operation of the lines; a key aspect of which is the variety of physical gestures and vocal calls that they perform while undertaking their duties. While these might strike visitors as silly, the movements and shouts are a Japanese-innovated industrial safety method known as pointing-and-calling; a system that reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent.
Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers” …. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.

(emphasis mine)

Watch how it works:

In this case, a railworker is ensuring that the tracks are clear as a train approaches. This is a task he probably repeats hundreds of times a day, and it’s a task with catastrophic consequences if it’s not done perfectly, every single time. Rather that just glance at the tracks and mentally check it off the list, the railworker performs a pointing motion as he scans the tracks for obstructions. The physical motion makes the task more reliable, time after time, even when it becomes completely routine.

This is exactly what happens in a standup when there’s a physical board: the team member announces what they worked on yesterday, e.g. “Yesterday, I finished the XYZ feature” and physically moves a card to the Done column that represents that work for everyone else to see, and then repeats it for today, e.g. “Today, I’ll finish the blog post about agile and shisa kanko”. While they’re saying it, they’re removing the clothespin from the card that’s complete and adding it to the new card for today’s work.

I’m a believer, I just never had a name for it until today. Thanks, Atlas Obscura, for the pointer.

What do you think? Is a physical board necessary? Helpful? A distraction?

Give me your thoughts at eric@newbo.co.


Eric Engelmann founded Geonetric in 1999, and presently works as the Executive Director of NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a board member at Scrum Alliance, the Technology Association of Iowa, and GO Cedar Rapids.