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Tim Healey

Operations

The Real Purpose of Visual Management Tools

Creating sustainable and meaningful workflow

Published: Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 17:05

Visual management is increasingly common in offices implementing lean. Yet even though signs, large LCD displays, whiteboards, and charts dominate the wall space, these tools often become part of the wallpaper. After just a few months, many offices revert back to meetings and management to provide information and services within the company or, more important, to the customer.

This breakdown often results from a lack of understanding about why visual management is important in the first place. Defining operational excellence as “when each and every employee can see the flow of value and fix problems before the flow breaks down” goes a long way toward explaining why visuals are important, but the complete answer is more complex.

Visuals for flow

Simply put, the reason to create visual flow in the office is so that everyone can see when the flow is broken. In the office, lean professionals are often tasked with coming up with some visual representation of flow for work that is hidden in computers. The reason for creating these visuals is to show when the flow is normal and when it’s abnormal. This means that both conditions must be defined in the value-stream design process. Moreover, the future-state value stream design should define standard work for fixing abnormal flow. Otherwise, when operators see a visual signal indicating abnormal flow, there’s no visual explanation of how to deal with it, which leads to meetings and firefighting.

Once a team understands that visual management is important to its flow, a debate between physical vs. digital signals—i.e., a whiteboard with magnets or a flat screen monitor hung on the wall—commonly arises. The truth is that either approach can work. The real question isn’t about the nature of the display but rather whether a visual tool is part of the flow.

The real purpose of visual management tools

Many visual management indicators are intended simply to tell management something. They may show how many quotes have been processed in a day, what the average wait time is in the call center, or how many engineering change orders are in the queue. You might think of these as rear-view mirrors, a reflection of what has already happened. Such displays are often ignored, becoming part of the background after a short period of time.

The best visual tools don’t tell management about something that’s already happened, but instead are designed by employees, for employees, to guide and enable their flow going forward. Not rear-view mirrors, but maps.

High-performance companies with visual management that’s up to date, understood, and constantly in use, tend to have something in common: They have made their visual tool part of the flow. This means employees have to physically interact with the tool in order to get new work or move completed work forward. They don’t access a database or their email to get their next engineering design task and then update a visual indicator; rather, employees go to the visual flow board and pick up a card that tells them which file to open from the database. When they have finished, they move this card into the next area on the board. In this way, the visual system is not only an integral part of the flow of work, but also an enabler of it, meaning that without the visual tool, the work would not flow successfully.

Successful visuals free up management

When a visual tool’s design shows employees what to work on next, how long they should spend on it, how many tasks they can have in progress, whether the flow is normal or abnormal, and how they should respond to the current flow status—and employees’ interactions with the tool keep it updated—management doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day flow of work, which eliminates some of their tasks.

That’s the difference between a visual system that simply presents a picture of what’s currently happening compared to one that actually manages the workflow and, as a result, removes workload from management. With the latter, rather than firefighting on everyday tasks, management can dedicate more of its time and focus to business growth, innovation, or other offense-based, value-added activities.

Is your visual tool successful?

When tasked with designing a visual tool to enable flow in the office, consider the following questions:
• Is the visual tool aligned with the future-state value stream design?
• Does the value stream design (and visual tool) account for normal and abnormal flow?
• Is the visual tool capable of telling employees what to work on next?
• Is the tool the only place to get this work from?
• Has the tool been designed by the team, for the team?
• Is the visual tool an actual part of the flow, or is it just a reflection of what’s currently happening?

When a visual management system reflects a detailed future-state value stream design, shows normal vs. abnormal flow, is the sole source of work assignment for people in the value stream, and has been designed by the team for the team, it will likely be genuinely part of the flow. This approach will ensure the tool’s longevity and increase the team’s appreciation for it.

Deciding whether a visual indicator should be physical or digital can be difficult. Although there tends to be a natural bias toward the digital today, due either to the availability of inexpensive screens or because team members are dispersed globally, many of the best tools are physical, such as those made up of whiteboards, magnets, and even colored beer cups. They’re not greatly effective because they’re physical, but because they’re part of the flow.

How can you tell if a visual is great? The answer is whether a visitor can walk through your office and tell if the work is proceeding on time without asking any questions. That’s the true test for operational excellence in the office.

Discuss

About The Author

Tim Healey’s picture

Tim Healey

Tim Healey is a director at Duggan Associates, an international training and advisory firm that assists companies in applying advanced lean techniques to achieve operational excellence. Healey leads Duggan Associates' complex office environment team, overseeing the teaching and implementing of operational excellence principles at global organizations. Healey specializes in helping engineering, product development, human resources, finance, and sales and marketing departments, and has worked with Fortune 500 companies. Prior to moving to the United States, Healey worked in the consumer packaged goods industry in Australia and held marketing and sales roles at major Australian and U.S. organizations.