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Visual Thinking—Visible Action

#06 OE Newsletter

OE Newsletters

Visual Management is a cornerstone principle of lean implementation. As defined in LeanSpeak a visual management system means “systematic attention to the goal of companywide integration of visual operation, including workplace organization and standardization (5S), visual display, visual metrics, and visual control.”

The goal is transparency—transparency of operations so that they can be understood by everyone and managed in real time at the place where the work is happening.

A couple of key words embedded in this definition often get glossed over as people work on lean transformations—“systematic” and “integration.” As with any “lean tool,” it’s easy to fall into the common trap of making changes that appear to be lean on the surface, such as setting up shadow boards and visual control boards, but missing the higher purpose for which the “tools” evolved in the first place. The point is real-time communication—a highly responsive visual information system—so that the condition of operations can be grasped quickly and appropriate actions or countermeasures taken.

Inspiration from a visual fanatic

We recently caught some truly engaging brief videos shot at filmmaker Casey Neistat’s studio in New York.

They reveal the thinking that went into his custom built, visually oriented space. From tool shadow boards to the organization of supplies and equipment, he’s created a rudimentary visual setup based on functionality (and it’s fun to watch him explain it). While his studio doesn’t represent a high-level example of a world-class visual management system, what is interesting is the instinctive impulses and thought process behind the way he works:

“I get a lot of ‘why am I so OCD or obsessive about this space?’ It’s not so much about that; it’s just pure functionality. I mean, there’s so much shit in here, all of it’s used, and you have to keep track of it. Every minute that I spend looking for Velcro tape or my drill gun is a minute I’m not doing something productive. So why not build an infrastructure that supports that rather than encourages the chaos. The tool area looks the way it looks not because I think it looks cool, but because that’s the height of functionality. And that level of functionality breeds it’s own aesthetic.”

The tools are not the higher purpose in and of themselves—they serve the higher purpose. It’s a fundamental and seemingly obvious concept, but one that bears repeating.

Adherence to a visual information system

To become a world-class lean organization, that purpose-driven perspective is critical. As stated in Implementing a Lean Management System (published by Productivity Press):

“Successful adherence to new standards is founded on a shared understanding among the people expected to maintain the improvement…. Visual control methods are the building blocks of a visual information system. They are based on the idea of just-in-time information—the right information, in an appropriate form, in the hands of the people who can act on it, precisely when it is needed.”

Setting up a visual workplace requires more than putting the visual tools in place. It requires consistently developing that shared understanding of the higher purpose among everyone in the company and consistently ensuring the visual system drives action and results. In turn, that requires establishing leader standard work to assure understanding and consistent adherence, and working to continuously improve the system itself.

Check yourself against the benchmark for world-class level information architecture as set in our Corporate Diagnosis:

“All employees continuously improve visual control systems to enhance transparency and adherence to standards.”

That’s the ideal state you’re driving toward. Not everyone will display the kind of enthusiasm that Casey shows for visual systems, but you’ve undoubtedly got some people who will. Leveraging their instincts and ensuring that the higher purpose is consistently reinforced through leader standard work will go a long way to keeping you on track.

Ask the consultants

Q. What’s the #1 thing we should do to be sure our improvement effort gets off on the right foot?

A. Many factors contribute to launching or renewing a successful improvement initiative. And they work in tandem. In Ellis New’s post, he boils it down to three fundamental elements, and then captures the essence of those in one critical word.