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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Visuality: I See What You Mean

Report from the 2010 International Visual Workplace Summit

Published: Thursday, October 28, 2010 - 06:00

Earlier this week, 100 attendees from near and far descended on Salt Lake City for the 2010 International Visual Workplace Summit, sponsored by the QMI Visual Lean Institute and the Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership. We were all there to discuss the visual workplace. My first question was, “What’s that?”

I quickly learned that a visual workplace is “a work environment that is self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating, and self-improving where what is supposed to happen does happen, on time, every time, day or night because of visual devices.

A basic example

One of the presenters showed a before-and-after use of workplace visuality. Before, forklift drivers placed pallets randomly around the factory, based on what was expedient for them. After visual instructions (e.g., floor markings) were created, the result was not just a tidier workplace, but also a more reliable and predictable workflow. This simple addition created an environment that encouraged employees to ask questions and offer suggestions because the culture had shifted to one of a greater precision in communication, visually.

Before visual instructions

After visual instructions


Summit attendees included a wide array of companies, from check printers to naval shipyards. Job positions included quality managers, kaizen facilitators, Six Sigma Black Belts, vice presidents of manufacturing, workplace coordinators, and even one manufacturing company president.

During the workshops and breaks, a frequently heard attendee sentiment was, “Yeah, we’ve got some signs and charts on the walls, and some quality operating procedures (QOPs) tacked up that people can refer to so our executives think we’ve got visuality working for us. What I’m seeing here is that a visual workplace looks at the floors, the walls, the fixtures, the furniture, everything, as part of a blank canvas in which to transform information into an instantly recognizable visual pattern.”

There were a total of eight workshops, covering the range of poka-yoke (mistake-proofing), visual pull systems, hoshin kanri techniques, maintenance mapping, thinking visually, and a couple of case studies of implementation projects.

The speakers were all amusingly uniform in at least one aspect of their presentations: A visual workplace is less about a collection of visual devices, and more about how we think. It’s less about the techniques of painting lines, and more about building bridges of communication and cultural change.


I must admit, having had only a cursory exposure to visual workplace principles, I carried a lightly cynical attitude, wondering how complicated can the concept of using a few pictures be?  Well, as Shrek put it, “Ogres have layers.” And so do visual workplace principles.  For example, among the simplest of visual devices is the markings for parking multiple types of commercial jets. Yet, it seems only logical that this required expertise from and coordination with engineering, maintenance, Federal Aviation Administration regulators, pilots, catering, and the baggage handlers.

This is what an airport might look like without visual instructions.

This, of course, shows how airports tell pilots and ground crew where to go (fortunately).

Our eye-driven biology

Gwendolyn Galsworth, one of the conference organizers, explained the biological and evolutionary roots of a visual workplace. Behind the theory is the drive to “create behavior that is eye-driven, because the mind is a pattern-seeking mechanism.”

She then gave an example as amusing as it is profound:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat lteter be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mind deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Amzanig, huh? I don't think I need to explain the above paragraph.

Workplace psychology

Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of what was covered that day centered on the psychology of a work environment. One presenter provoked the audience with this: “People have too many questions. Some of them are asked. But most of them are unasked.”

A purpose of introducing visuality to the workplace is to provide information that answers questions. Equally as important, visuality pries out the unasked questions until purpose is identified with a minimum of dialogue and wasted steps.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


Visuality and Software

Great article Jeff, thanks.

It has me thinking that the principles can be applied into other aspects of the work environment that are a little less obvious than the floors, ceilings, and walls of the warehouse. Especially for people who primarily work with information, since most of that work is done with a software application of some kind.

David Smithstein, Founder and CEO