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Gwendolyn Galsworth


Visuality: A System of Systems Hidden in Plain Sight

Visual information sharing is the platform on which lean happens

Published: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 12:00

When James Womack and Daniel Jones published Lean Thinking in 1996, they offered the world a book that collected the core principles of a key operational model. Though not stated directly, they created a profile for the Toyota Production System (TPS) that was revelatory and highly useful, adding a deeper logic to JIT, standard work, kanban, load leveling, and other associated operational mechanisms.

The impact of that book (and its model) was nothing short of dazzling. Its elements work—and work well together. Finally, a way of contemplating the war on waste (muda) that is drawn broadly enough for it to apply not just to many work venues but to any work venue. This was a coup and a contribution of a very high order. Plus, the lean thinking model positions marketing and sales as a partner to operations, a surprise to many at the time.

Five principles are noted: value, the value stream, flow, pull, and perfection. Who could argue with those? So then what is the problem? What is it that Womack and Jones overlooked—and what has that got to do with 5S? The problem is that what they defined remains incomplete. A principle is left out. As such, the problem is one of omission, not commission. Interestingly, the omitted “thing” was (and is) invisible to most eyes, anyway: the principle of visual information sharing.

If, like our authors, you think of the visual workplace as a series of point solutions, albeit clever, relevant, and useful, you will miss my meaning. You will see such visual devices as kanban, andon, color-coding, and the like as enablers—tools that support value stream, flow, pull, and perfection. You are not worrying on a micro-level; those tools are enablers. But you are missing the level of principle: that workplace visuality is a system first. More than that, it is a system of systems. Further still, the visual workplace is the very ground in which those systems reside.

All work is the translation of information into exact behavior—the behavior of people, of machines, of the OEM and of its supply chain, and other such pairings. Workplace visuality is the very ground on which the stream of value we call work exists. Let me put it another way. The conversion of material (or thought) into greater value—i.e., some product or service the customer is willing to pay for—requires two core ingredients: information (e.g., specs, work instructions) and a physical locale. Even when that work is computer-based, the implements of that work are physical.

The required marriage of information and physicality is what makes the visual workplace a required operational principle. Lean, with standard work as the organizer, does a remarkable job in identifying and shrinking flow distance and flow time—namely, the value stream. But if that information is not physically embedded, the stream of value unravels. Without the logic of visuality, in fact, the stream of value can only be partly found. The purpose of visuality is to embed the gross and minute details of your operational system into the living landscape of work—because those details are the work. This is bedrock. Information in the workplace literally defines the five lean principles that Womack and Jones set forth in their groundbreaking book. Made visual, that information becomes an active partner in realizing those five. How? By embedding them,

Hidden in plain sight, visual information sharing is the platform on which lean happens. That is why I say that visuality is not just a principle of lean thinking but its equal and powerful partner on the journey to operational excellence. The active partnership between visual and lean is the only way that destination can be achieved—and sustained.

And so when in 1996 Womack and and Jones placed 5S as the first step on the journey to lean and spoke to the importance off “transparency in everything,” I assumed, however wrongly, that they too had discovered the impeccable logic that makes the visual workplace indispensable to the war on waste; that they knew visuality is the the very ground on which the principles of their new model must reside. However, just because they omitted the pivotal principle of visuality doesn’t mean you have to.


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.