First Order Information Retrievability

A lot of information might be important, but you don't need it all the time.

March 4, 2022

When designing an Obeya or a dashboard, there is always a tension between wanting information on the Obeya to be radiated and the Obeya becoming cluttered and unusable. The temptation is to show everything - after all, we want to be transparent. But very quickly the Obeya becomes cluttered. It's hard to find the information you need amongst all the other data that is handy, but not useful right now. It also becomes slow to update and refresh as it is pulling in so much data from so many sources.

It's always been a struggle to work out what information to include and what to leave off. Then I remembered an organising principle that I use in my workshop called First Order Retrievability. I have been using it for years without knowing it but have to thank Adam Savage, the Mythbusters guy, for articulating it really clearly in his book (every tool’s a hammer... check it out its great).

When I'm working there are 3 types of tools. There are the ones that I use so often that they need to be within arms reach when I'm at my bench. I hang those on a pegboard right next to my bench.

I can't have all my tools there. For a start, there isn't enough pegboard and even if there was it would be so cluttered that I couldn't find anything (I may have what most people would consider to be an excessive number of tools). I have maybe 10 or so tools that are first order tools. There are a few that are almost zeroth order that I need to have on hand at all times whether I'm at my bench or not - like a pencil... that's what pockets are for.

There are other places in my workshop where I position first order tools as well. I have my Bench first order tools, my drillpress first order tools (all my drill bits and chuck keys), my table saw first order tools (the blade change spanner) and so on, all of which hang close at hand where I really need them. 

Then I have a set of tools that I use really often but don't need on hand all the time. I don't use them for every job. Those go in the cupboards next to the bench. I know exactly where they are. I can find them easily then I need them but they don't add to the visual clutter of my first order tools. 

Then there are the third order tools - the ones I use occasionally. They go in the storage crates in the back of the workshop. I can find things when I need them but the rest of the time they aren't occupying valuable space.

Information on an Obeya works the same way. Is it first order - we need this all the time. In which case, display it directly on the Obeya. Of course, different pieces of information are needed at different times so, like the workshop, you can cluster pieces of information that are used at the same time into logical groups. On the Obeya these are referred to as the Mado (windows). When you want information about a particular area of the business you look in the appropriate Mado and there is all the first order information for that area.

What about second order information? We need this often enough that it needs to be easy to get to but doesn't need to be on the Obeya always. For these, consider an expanding widget that can shrink down when you don't need to see it, or have a link on the Obeya to follow. Or have it on a secondary board off to the side of the main Obeya. Having a separate Mado for collections of second order information, off to the side of the first order Mados can help keep that information accessible but not in the way.

Third order information, don't have on the dashboard at all. Have a useful links index and stick a link in there. You can find it when you need it but otherwise its out of the way and not making a mess.

Are there one or two pieces of information that you need so often that they are zeroth order? Do you need multiple copies in places to ensure that its always accessible?

In my workshop there is also a fourth class of tool - the ones that really should be first order but I keep them in a cupboard because they are delicate or dangerous or both. Things like my chisels. Even though I use them all the time, I keep them in a special drawer because their edges are delicate and need protection (and frankly I don’t trust the rest of my family to handle them safely). Some information is like that as well - useful enough to be on the dashboard but sensitive or dangerous enough that it can’t be. These you will have to decide case by case.

Review your first order information frequently - do we still need this? Is there something new that is more important? You should probably only have 5-10 pieces of first order information in any one Mado. Beyond that it's too cluttered.

Information design is something that is often overlooked but is extremely important, especially when in a hybrid or remorse environment where many informal channels of information are cut off. In order to provide the right context for the individuals and teams in the organisation, the information flow needs to be carefully considered - are they getting the right information at the right time?

This information design can take place at many levels in the organisation - at the team level when launching or re-launching a team. What information does the team need to do its job properly? The Team Launch canvas can help with this.

At the Team of teams level - what information do the teams need to share with each other, and what do they need from the rest of the organisation? These are questions that need to be asked when launching a team of teams, and should be reviewed regularly at the all hands review. 

At the leadership level - what information do leaders need to have visibility into what is going on (at the right level of detail) and steer the organisation effectively? What information do they need to provide to their stakeholders? Again, this should be designed when launching a leadership team and regularly reviewed.

In a hybrid/remote organisation, the flow of information is critical. It needs to be well designed and regularly reviewed. Without well designed information flows either critical information is missing when needed, or so much information is sprayed at people that they can’t see what is important in their current context and what is not.

Looking at information through the lens of first order retrievability give an organisation an excellent design tool for their information flows. To make sure that everyone has the context they need, when they need it.