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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Visual Thinking

Solve it with pictures.

Published: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 - 21:00

Since one of the pillars of lean thinking is the visual workplace, why hasn’t problem solving in the workplace been taken to the visual level?

Flowcharts are popular visual tools that can show what’s currently happening, what could be happening, or what should be happening—a great opportunity to show where there may be a disconnection between procedures and reality. A flowchart also provides a pictorial display of where problems occur and where and how proposed solutions may or may not solve the issue.

This pictorial display isn't used just in the workplace. Consider explaining the sports of baseball or American football. Just words in explanation can be a bit difficult to follow, but when paired with pictures drawn on a napkin, various positions and plays become quite obvious. Why don't we say it with pictures more often? Using pictorial displays isn’t a new approach in problem solving or process improvement. Lean and Six Sigma use pictures extensively, qualitatively (value stream mapping, fishbone diagrams, affinity diagrams) and quantitatively (pie charts, histograms, control charts, radar charts).

These tools and concepts aren’t new, and some of the more popular examples include:

  • Flow charts (a.k.a. process maps, box, and wire diagrams) have been used extensively throughout history in all functions and industries (e.g., software development and project management).
  • Gantt charts (bar charts) have been used to visually represent the length of time it takes to complete a specific task, in the order of occurrence and with associated dependencies.
  • Statistical process control uses charts (pictures) to show when a process is going out of control and when actions need to be taken to keep it within control.
  • Time-series charts tell stories that can be valuable in identifying problems (e.g., special causes) and show when remedial action needs to be taken and help to predict failures.
Edward E. Tufte has written many books on visual display. He demonstrates how using data graphics to visually display measured quantities through a combination of points, lines, a coordinate system, numbers, symbols, words, shading and color, makes it much easier to understand difficult information and to communicate such information to nontechnical folks. These graphics can then be used for analyzing and solving problems. He also shows how visualization can be useful in strategic decision making. Eliyahu Goldratt, in his explanation of the theory of constraints, draws upon visual tools (e.g., reality trees, evaporating clouds, drum buffer rope, throughput, push/pull, perceptions of value) and he does so not with extensive use of quantitative data, but with rather simple linked boxes to better understand conflicts and constraints, to identify areas of resistance, to expose wrong assumptions, and to get buy-in from folks who will be required to make changes.

Probabilistic decision making uses decision trees extensively to facilitate decisions with a higher probability of achieving the desired outcome. These are just everyday pictures (dots, circles, and lines) that highlight choices and possible outcomes.

So why don’t we use these simple tools more often? Is it because we believe that we don’t know how to draw? Or is it because we don’t want to be seen as too simplistic? After all, using big, technical words makes us sound more professional and shows us to be more knowledgeable than others, doesn't it?

Most people have heard that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Why don’t we use pictures wherever we can? Microsoft’s PowerPoint has become a ubiquitous tool, almost to the point of becoming a crutch; using bullet points and reading the presentation has become the norm and has resulted in decreased effectiveness. Drawing simple pictures on a whiteboard to explain concepts or sketching boxes on a flip chart to show linkages, albeit not quite as neat, is much more powerful. It draws people in, gets them involved, brings out the issues, identifies constraints, and gets us results.

Make visual thinking the norm in your organizations and solve its problems with pictures.


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.