Using Artifacts to Make Our Thinking Visible

By Jon Miller Updated on February 27th, 2022

In sports, statecraft, gambling, and other competitive endeavors, it often pays to hide one’s thoughts and true intentions. What we indicate and what we actually intend are often different. We hold our cards close to the chest and try to read our opponent’s tells. What cards does the other person hold? What cards do they think I hold? We say that information is power. But not all information is power to everyone all of the time. I would say that the right information in the hands of the right person at the right time, is power.

In contrast, when we are collaborating rather than competing, we need to put our cards on the table. In the lean management approach, there’s an emphasis on sharing information. Showing our hand. Making our thinking visible to others. Giving power to those who might be able to use it at the right time, in the right place. This is not unique to the lean style. Many organizations may practice radical openness without lean principles. However, I would venture to say that for lean management, this is an essential and core habit. In lean practice, there are many artifacts, mapping exercises, and forms that are evidence of visual collaboration.

What Makes an Effective Artifact?

Researchers have found important differences between group thinking and individual thinking while being part of a group. We can think separately about problems, but it’s much more powerful when many brains are working on them together. For this to be productive, they’ve found it’s important to make our thought processes visible to others on our team. It matters that artifacts are used as shared reference points because people can attend the same meeting and come away with different understandings. We may focus on certain details, take or miss notes, confirm our biases, or react to favored issues. It’s important when working together on complex problems or multi-part challenges to be singing from the same sheet of music.

We use the word “artifact” for the visible or even tangible representations of how we are thinking about the task or challenge at hand. What makes an effective artifact? There are four factors. They should be analog, complex, persistent, and revisable. Analog rather than digital because this enables a group of people gathered together in a room to work on the same thing, such as a wall being filled artifact on the wall. Artifacts should be complex enough to credibly represent reality, not a simplified and unrealistic cartoon. Persistent means that a document resides on a wall or place where people can revisit, and as needed, revise it. Lean practitioners may already recognize themselves practicing these habits and are invited to pat themselves on the back.

Size Matters

The visual artifacts we use to support group thinking should be big. Their complexity almost requires this. Something small and complex is hard to read. Large artifacts create space to capture the ideas, questions, and thoughts of more people. This helps reveal the thinking of more people. This also makes the process inclusive, raising the chance of buy-in and success.

There is a connection between physical movement and thinking, described in the book The Extended Mind. Researchers have found that people enhance their own thinking by using gestures. It’s helpful not only to the person doing the pointing but engages the minds of others in the group. Another interesting point is that large artifacts help reveal where people’s attention goes. When a person is introduced to a value stream map or another large artifact, where do they look first? Where do they spend time? On the details? On the overall picture? On what’s not pictured? What does this reveal about how they see the issue?

Kata Learners Reveal Thinking to Kata Coaches

A good example of all of this is kata coaching. The learner makes their thinking process explicit using a kata storyboard to summarize how they arrive at and conduct experiments. There are clear expectations for how to investigate the current situation, identify obstacles and measure the effects of experiments.  This allows the coach to see when the learner deviates from kata, or pattern of scientific thinking pattern. Perhaps the learner made false assumptions, looked at the data the wrong way, jumped to conclusions, or otherwise erred in thinking, as human will.

In kata, the learner and coach use the storyboard to engage in a scripted review of the learner’s thinking process. On the one hand, many coaches find reading a set of questions from a card and having the learner point and read from the storyboard to be awkward, put on, or clumsy. On the other hand, it has the effect of shifting the conversation from “here’s what you did wrong” to asking questions designed to reveal the learner’s thought process. The five questions card and kata storyboard are concrete artifacts to reinforce the desired habits.

Acknowledge, Repeat, Rephrase, Elaborate

What the kata pattern helps us realize is that creating a persistent artifact is not enough. We need people to practice effective communication, supported by the visuals. The structured pattern of kata questions hews close to a set of four steps that researchers recommend. When a teammate makes a contribution we should acknowledge, repeat, rephrase, and elaborate on what they say. This promotes a more comprehensive information exchange. In other words, when a person puts their cards on the table, we need to let them know we saw it, value it, and want to build on it.

The rephrasing also has the effect of exposing the whole group to the information, helping them understand and remember the key points. Researchers say that type of communication reduces errors and makes expert teamwork more effective. This seems awkward, redundant, like we are in kindergarten again, repeating that A is for apple. Back in those days we had a lot to learn and weren’t too proud or embarrassed to engage with our classmates. Perhaps the judicious use of artifacts can help our adult minds pick up new ideas, create and solve problems like the open minds of children.

  1. Dan Prock

    March 4, 2022 - 10:20 am

    Nicely written. Next you might delve into why visuals are sometimes abandoned by teams.

  2. Isaiah Kittel

    March 30, 2022 - 3:40 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I had never heard of kata before and the process of analyzing one’s thought process to then better an organization. Is kata another strategy from Taiichi Ohno? Overall, the idea of group collaboration is a very important, but the use of visual artifacts certainly adds a greater advantage. A lot of people are visual learners, so adding a visual tool for discussion and communication is a great strategy. I believe this goes hand and hand with visual controls and the kanban strategy. Both relying on visual tools to better an organizations processes, whether it be inventory control or just basic group problem solving. You do mention leaving the large artifact up for a while to allow for more participation and changes to be made, does it get to the point when it has been up for too long and a team must move on? Also, is it a form of waste leaving it up for too long and dwelling on a project when new problems are arising in other areas?

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