What do you get when you combine project management with MDF, Velcro and Sheer Spandex?
There’s an app for everything these days. So when we needed a solution to project planning and resourcing multiple teams, I immediately turned to the Internet.
There are loads of really great, intuitive apps out there for resource planning. A few I tried included Forecast (by Harvest), Float and Team Gannt. Each of these is brilliant in its own right, but they all shared one major drawback: when they were out of sight, they were out of mind. I needed to find a way to keep our team aware of the schedule, without asking everyone to add another permanent tab to their browser.
Then I found Bit Planner. (I say “I”, one of the team actually told me about it during my research.)
How we got the team engaged and involved with our project schedule
In a nutshell, Bit Planner
was a concept project, which has unfortunately since ceased, [Update 20/06/2016] is a concept project which is very much alive, designed to transform Lego project management plans into digital calendar entries (in an app like Google Calendar, for example) using nothing but imaging from your smartphone.
“Lego?” I hear you say. That’s right; who doesn’t love playing with Lego! The idea of a Lego-based project plan solved all of the issues I had been facing. It was front of mind, interactive, and it was fun. The lines between project management and playtime were blurring!
So I set about building the Zest Lego project management plan.
I would like to add a couple of caveats at this point. I was not attempting to recreate the photo>gCal API that Bit Planner set out to do. I was just looking for a more interactive way to resource schedule. I would also like to be clear that using Lego to create a project schedule is not an original concept. To my knowledge, however, no one has yet documented the process, so here we are.
With that out of the way, the way Bit Planner had approached project scheduling left me with two issues:
- First issue – no one seems to have documented how to plan and build your own Lego project plan.
- Second issue – Bit Planner used one colour to indicate one client project and I needed multiple colours per client. (As a digital marketing agency our clients don’t change, but the streams of work we deliver do.)
So, how do you plan for a Lego wall, and how do you actually build it? I’ve broken this post into four sections:
1. The planning phase
Before I began building I had to resolve the colour issue that the original Bit Planner used, which was one colour per client / project.
Being a digital marketing agency we have multiple clients, for whom we are delivering multiple streams of work. Each stream is often dependent on another. So how do you make this clear on a Lego wall?
Instead of using colour to indicate the project/client, I flipped it around and used colour to indicate which work type was taking place for a client over any given time (often with more than one work stream taking place at a time).
This worked really nicely as our project management and tasking system is all tagged by its specific work type. Everyone in our team is familiar with their colours so I knew there would be instant visual recognition on the Lego wall.
Our project management and tasking system, alongside the coloured Lego blocks ordered to represent the equivalent tag.
Resource planning (digitally)
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just go out and buy a load of Lego. I needed to make sure I had a plan to work from.
For me this was relatively simple as the existing project plan wasn’t working at all, so I scrapped it and went back to the drawing board.
I started off by planning my projects out like they would appear on the wall and in a spreadsheet.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but doing it this way was going to save me hours in the future.
This is because if we needed to add, remove or reschedule anything I could do it quickly in excel and then go and replicate that on the Lego wall.
Each row represents a client. Each column represents two half days, split by AM and PM. There are 62 columns, representing the AM and PM of each day of the month, including weekends.
In my digital version I allowed for 3 rows per client. This is because we can have up to three streams of work happening at any one time for a particular client. In my Lego version I just stack the coloured bricks on top of one another (with the longest work stream at the bottom).
Our digital version of the Lego project plan.
Another key part of our project plan was figuring out when work streams take place per team. I had to consider two really vital points when planning each team’s time:
- Our team performs better when allowed a flexible allocation of time to work on certain clients – Creativity is key to our industry. Your team may not be in the right frame of mind to work on a particular client on a set time or day. Instead, we spread the available time over two to four days and work on multiple clients simultaneously. This allows the team to work on whomever they feel in the right frame of mind for. It also avoids you having to micromanage. Instead you are essentially saying “we need A, B and C clients all complete within the next four days. How you prioritise that is up to you”.
- Your team are extremely unlikely to be productive for 100% of the working day – Your team get interrupted, they take breaks, go on holiday, answer emails and phone calls, and likely take on ad hoc work your client services team throw at them. It is therefore important to know what your team’s true billable capacity is. We record all of our time using Harvest so this has been easy for me to calculate, but for those who don’t it’s going to average somewhere between 73-82% (depending on the team member). The reason Sweden are moving to a 6 hour working day is to improve productivity and have happier staff.
Taking these two points into account I have been able to plot clients against the time needed to complete their work, while allowing the team the time they need to work creatively, whilst allowing for day-to-day distractions.
2. The building phase (the DIY bit)
Once you have a digital plan, then comes the building phase.
I took a fair bit of time to plan the building phase. As my Design and Technology teacher Mr Crossfill always said to me in his broad Yorkshire accent…
“Measure twice, cut once, James”
Ironically, moments later, Mr Crossfill cut the end of his thumb off on the bansaw. I guess he heeded his own “cut once” philosophy on that day.
Below are all of the materials I used to build the Zest Digital project planning wall. Admittedly I missed some of these materials from my initial plan, but my mistakes have been accounted for so that you can get it right first time:
Materials needed (with very approximate costs):
- MDF board (12mm thick) [£30.00 cut]
- MDF primer (MDF is extremely paint absorbent, you need this stuff!) [£15.00]
- Matt paint (colour of your choice) [£20.00]
- Fine sandpaper or wire wool [£7.00]
- Sticky backed Velcro tape (5m per board) [£100.00 for extra strong]
- Staple gun and staples [£10.00]
- Lego boards [£180.00]
- Lego bricks [£100.00]
- Lego Minifigures (super heroes preferable) [£10.00 from eBay for 16]
- Lego tiles [£25.00]
- Transparent ink-jet labels [£6.00]
- Tape measure and a pencil
- Soft felt pads (optional) [£4.00]
1.The Lego (how much?)
This should be relatively simple. Once you have plotted your plan digitally, count up the colours and go from there. I ended up ordering between 50 to 150 4×4 bricks of each colour, depending on its popularity.
2. The Lego boards (how many?)
I started by determining how I was going to space my days and projects. I simply drew circles, shaded the ones which would be filled with Lego, and went from there. I then multiplied this by the number of days and projects we had, leaving me with the length and number of Lego boards needed.
In this instance each day represents 7 stubs.
The maximum number of days in a month are 31.
7 stubs X 31 = 217.
I also needed to allow for some space at the front to list out the tasks and clients. I determined this to be 9 stubs.
217 + 9 = 226 stubs wide.
Following this I needed to know how many clients I could fit on a board (vertically).
I planned for boards that were 24 stubs wide by 48 stubs high. (You can use 48 x 48, but I chose 24 x 48 in the end – not sure why!)
Following the same process as above, vertically, I needed 5 stubs for the days of the week, then 4 stubs per client. With only 48 stubs available it means I could fit 11 clients per board.
On the basis I needed 226 stubs for a month and each board was 24 stubs wide, I determined I needed 10 boards to accommodate 11 projects of 31 days each.
The total length of 10 x 24 stub boards is 192cm.
The total height of 1 x 48 stub board is 38.5cm.
Lastly I decided to accommodate up to 33 projects (clients). This meant ordering 30 boards and building three identical Lego walls.
3. How to mount the Lego boards
I wanted to mount the Lego boards in such a way that they could easily be reused in the future and taken off the wall, put down on a table and talked about with the team or other people around it. For that reason I decided to mount the Lego boards to three equal cuts of MDF.
While I considered gluing the Lego boards to the MDF, I decided to Velcro them to the MDF so that they could be easily removed and moved around.
4. The MDF (cutting, preparing and painting)
Your choice of wood is up to you. I chose MDF because it’s easy to work with, but you could also use plywood.
When considering the length and width of the MDF I decided I wanted to have a slight border around the edge of the mounted boards. I got my MDF boards cut to allow for a 1cm border around. The total length of the MDF board I needed, based on the number of Lego boards I was to mount, was 194cm long by a height of 40.5cm.
With regards to strength I went for 12mm MDF to ensure the board remained rigid but light enough to lift.
I went to my local hardware store, found a large sheet of MDF and had it cut into three equal boards.
My MDF being cut to size early on a Saturday morning.
Next came the painting…
MDF is one of the most porous materials you can paint. For that reason you need to apply an MDF primer before painting it the colour of your choice. I had to prime the surfaces of the board three times each, and the edges five times. You must remember to paint front and back to keep the MDF straight. If you paint only one side it will cause the MDF to bow.
Leave the primer overnight to dry. Once it is dry give the boards a really light sanding down. This will remove the roughness and mean that your paint will take better to the wood. Wire wool is also a suitable alternative.
The MDF after its first coat of primer.
The boards after they have been completely primed. After one coat of paint (left) and after second coat of paint (right).
For painting I used a Matt Vinyl in dark grey (part of our corporate colours) but you can use any colour you like. As with the primer I painted the boards front and back three times and around the edges five times. Keep your coats light until the last one. This will allow you to paint all three boards one after the other, so that the first has dried by the time you have finished painting the third.
Again, leave the boards to dry overnight, so that the paint has enough time to harden.
I would recommend standing the boards on their sides, not their ends. This will again stop them from bending and drying in a slightly bowed position – I learnt this the hard way
5. Mounting the lego boards
If you would like to keep the Lego boards in a state where you may be able to reuse them in the future, then go down the route of mounting them using Velcro. If you are not bothered then you can simply glue them and move on to step 6.
For each board you will require about 6m of Velcro tape. I used industrial strength Velcro tape measuring 18m long by 25mm wide.
Firstly I stuck two equal lengths of the rough side (known as the ‘hook’) of Velcro to the MDF boards, running the length of the board. These were set about 25mm in from the edge to allow for the border and to avoid overlap when setting the Lego boards down.
You will then see that I used a staple gun to secure the Velcro to the MDF.
The back of one of the boards showing the Velcro running through the length of the board.
Once I had the Velcro attached I moved onto attaching the softer side of Velcro (known as the ‘loop’) to the Lego boards.
I started by sticking the Velcro to the top and the bottom of the board, set in an equal amount from the edge as I did with the MDF, less 10mm to account for my border. This meant setting the velcro 15mm from the edge of the board.
Once I had done this I ran two lengths of Velcro the length of the Lego board.
Mounted boards, showing their 10mm border top and bottom, plus an over turned board showing how the softer velcro is mounted underneath.
As you can see from the picture above, I didn’t prepare all of the boards and then mount them all. I did them as I went. This allowed me to make small adjustments if needed.
Up to this point I haven’t talked about sticking the hook side of the Velcro to width of the MDF. This is something I also did as I went. Once I had stuck the loop length of Velcro to the long side of my Lego board I turned it over, leaving half of the MDF board exposed. This allowed me to line up where I would stick (and eventually staple) the remaining hook side of the Velcro to the MDF, so that I had a rectangle of Velcro on both the MDF and Lego board.
NB: Don’t try to save time and Velcro by sticking a length of Velcro down the middle of each Lego board. It will leave the Lego boards unstable when mounted to the MDF and you unable to mount Lego to the board when having to go across a join.
This is a lengthy process, probably about 2 hours per 10 Lego boards if done properly, but I recommend you take your time over it. Once done, you end up with the following:
Two of the finished boards, painted and will all of the Lego boards mounted to them using Velcro.
6. Finishing touches
We wanted our Lego boards to be hung on the wall, rather than screwed in. This allows us to take them down, put them on a table and talk about them with the whole team.
For this reason I applied two finishing touches to each board:
- Soft felt pads in each corner, and along the length of the back of the board, to stop it scratching the wall.
- Hooks at three equal points along the back of the board to allow us to hang it on the wall.
3. The having fun phase
Once your boards are built then it’s time to start playing with your Lego. I’m sure you can figure this bit out for yourself, but here’s some insight into what I did.
The Lego tiles
I started by positioning all of the grey tiles that indicate my days of the week, weekends and clients.
Once these were in place I then used the transparent inkjet labels to print off the labels needed to identify each tile.
Tip: Keep aside some grey tiles and print some labels for bank/public holidays.
Placing the Lego
Once the tiles were in place, putting the lego onto the boards was easy. I just printed my project plan out and went from there.
The main difference at this point, to my electronic version, was that lego now needed to be place in three dimensions. The way I worked this was by placing the longest work stream at the bottom, and the shorter ones on top (as can be seen below). I am anal and this just kept each work stream in line.
Choosing your character
You can find Lego equivalents of almost anyone. Order a handful of your favourite big screen characters, then let your team loose. Every team member chose their own characters, incorporating the team into the process and allowing them to feel involved.
I chose to be Batman. Not because I have two deceased parents, or because I’m a billionaire, but because I love technology, flying, and the closeness of skin-tight spandex.
What I have learnt by taking the Lego project management approach
- We all have deadlines to work towards, and working in 2-3 day sprints was a real productivity booster vs other methods we have tried.
- It’s easy to ignore any project plan if you don’t keep it front of mind. If it’s on the wall, at least make it look good and fun to play with!
- Ahead of schedule or behind on other things? The team will move the schedule around themselves to suit, whilst remaining aware of each other’s dependencies.
- Whilst software is great and I am a huge advocate of it, there is no easier way than knowing what your team are doing, than seeing Lego Minifigures on a wall.
- The above naturally adds a team accountability that ensures tasks get done. Nobody wants to be the character left behind…
If you like this post, then please let others know about it. If you would like to know more, or have questions tweet @jameszest and I will be happy to answer them.