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Gwendolyn Galsworth


The Single Biggest Problem in Communication...

... Is the illusion that it has taken place

Published: Monday, July 3, 2017 - 12:03

The one complaint—the one problem—that nearly every company puts at (or very near) the top of its list of challenges is communication. George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright, sets us straight on this when he said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

 What happens when information is not available when and as you need it? What happens when you discover (despite your fervent hopes and efforts to the contrary) that most of the information that is shared is unreliable. incomplete, late, or just plain wrong? What happens to you? What happens to us on the outside? What happens on the inside? What happens to a workforce that is faced with this as the rule, not the exception?

What happens is people get angry and combative—or numb and indifferent. We do! Instead of engaging in our work and developing ways to make a contribution, we do just the opposite: We disassociate from our company; we even disown it.

Information is power. If you are old enough, then you (like me) learned that during the 1960s. The revolution that exploded during that period is still playing itself out. When we  liberate information, we liberate the human will. And that is one of the primary purposes of the visual workplace—to liberate otherwise hidden or secret information and in the process of so doing, liberate the power that is in each of us, the power of our will. Only a liberated will can choose to align with the corporate intent. Anything else is closer to coercion—or simply a looming need to pay the mortgage.

Things picked up when, during the 1980s, Japan demonstrated the liberation of information in the visual formats of standard operating procedures and work instructions, scheduling boards, hoshin, and the simple visual information sharing connected with 5S. Progress may have been slow, but it was also steady. We began to understand that part of the power in an empowered workforce was the parity created when information is reliably and repeatedly shared. When that information is made visual by design, it becomes a tangible and indispensable part of the business model.

In workplace visuality, we translate vital work information into visual devices—and the devices ensure that our behavior is exact, safe, timely, and correct. Through them, we imbed the intelligence that is our operational system into the living landscape of work—whether an office, hospital, factory, or open pit mine. We imbed that information in the form of visual devices into the field of value—where work happens.

Visuality is about meaning and understanding, not simply seeing. A visual workplace imbeds meaning into the dynamic landscape of work. In doing that, it imbeds language. It communicates. Move away from the motion of visuality as a useful but nonetheless inanimate collection of visual work aides. Move instead toward the paradigm that visuality is the language of performance. Brought to an even more complete level, it is the language of your operational excellence, even if you are not yet quite as excellent as you want to be (or will be).

All that is communicated—broadcast—clearly and specifically in a visual workplace. We see your operational vocabulary in action. We see your business model.

Hidden in plain sight, visual information sharing began to power western businesses during the 1980s, and that impact continues to build to this day. If Shaw were alive, he might amend his famous statement about communication as follows: “The single most powerful way to ensure that communication has happened, is to imbed information in place through visual devices.”

First published on the Visual Thinking website.


About The Author

Gwendolyn Galsworth’s picture

Gwendolyn Galsworth

Gwendolyn Galsworth, Ph.D., has been implementing visuality for more than 30 years. She’s focused on codifying the visual workplace concepts, principles, and technologies into a single, coherent sustainable framework of knowledge. Galsworth founded Visual Thinking Inc. in 1991, and in 2005 she launched The Visual-Lean Institute where in-house trainers and external consultants are trained and certified in the Institute’s nine core visual workplace methods. Two of the seven books Galsworth has written received the Shingo Research and Professional Publication Award.



Thank you Gwendolyn.  For years I was chairman of the MBA Program at U of Tenn, and while we preached communication, it was not until I got out in the plants that I discovered what you have given us in your article.

As I taught people how to use process behavior charts I was surprised by the comments I kept getting from my clients.  Comments like "meetings don't last as long", "there is no more passing of the buck", and from one manager "these are honest men's tools, you can quit playing games and get down to work."  

The visual display of information that has been gathered and analyzed in a known and understanable manner changes the whole basis of communication.  Which is exactly the point you so eloquently make.