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Gwendolyn Galsworth

Six Sigma

Information Deficits and the Visual Workplace

Working in a place without visual information is like trying to reach a destination without a map

Published: Thursday, August 19, 2010 - 05:00

As every company knows, workplace information—production schedules, customer requirements, engineering specifications, operational methods, tooling and fixtures, material procurement, work-in-process, and the thousand other details on which the daily life of the enterprise depends—can change quickly and often. In any single day, thousands of informational transactions are required to keep work current, accurate, and timely.

But what happens when this vital information is hard to access, incomplete, inaccurate, or simply missing? People start asking a lot of questions, a lot of the same questions, repeatedly. An information-scarce workplace is the opposite of a visual workplace. When key information is not instantly available, the company pays for that in long lead times, late deliveries, poor quality, mistakes, accidents, low operator and managerial morale, and runaway costs.

When workplace visuality is not firmly in place, these unhappy occurrences are chronic and unrelieved. They happen all the time—day in and day out, week in and week out, year after year, and struggle becomes a way of life.

In the previsual workplace, everything and everyone is forced to exist within a narrow definition of their capability. The physical work environment is devoid of definition or conveyed context. There is no common purpose. It is devoid of meaning. Attempts to improve the process of work invariably fail because even the smallest gains disappear overnight. A previsual workplace has no means to sustain gains, however hard-won.

This is the unhappy state of affairs that results from chronic deficits of information—unanswered questions.

Many offices and production floors are flooded with questions that are asked—but many more experience a worse condition: questions that are unasked. We say “worse” because all too often when a question is not asked, people simply make up an answer. Sometimes that works to the benefit of the company, but all too frequently it works against it. Accidents happen, material is lost, defects are produced, delivery times are missed, and customers flee.

Working in an environment without visual information sharing is like trying to reach a destination by driving 100 miles without a map, on a road with no road signs, no traffic signals, and no lines down the center of the road. You can probably make it but you are likely to pay a terrible price.

Verbal questions are so commonplace in most companies that some people (including managers and supervisors) sometimes think that their main job is to provide the answers.

Calculating the level of information deficits (missing answers) in your company is the quickest way for you to diagnose the extent to which a visual work environment is both absent and needed. You can do this by keeping track of the questions asked of you at the front of a memo pad, and tracking the questions that you ask in the back.

Another way is to implement The-First-Question-Is-Free Rule. Here’s how that works:

1. When someone approaches you with a question, answer it politely and clearly. But as that person walks away, make a mental note: “That’s one.”

2. Then wait until you are asked that same question again, either by the same person or someone else. Again answer the question politely and clearly; and as that person walks away, make the mental note: “That’s two.”

3. The first question is free; and the second time you hear that same question from the same person or anybody else, it’s time for you to create a visual device—so you never have to answer that question again and no one ever has to ask it.

Start taking concrete steps in turning your work area into a visual workplace. Notice the information deficits around you; notice the questions—and the answers—that are missing. Then start answering them through visual devices. Create a workplace that speaks.


The maintenance department in this facility created this visual display to show everyone and anyone the status of current work orders: New/Green; Completed/Yellow; and Past Due/Red.

Here is an information-rich work area at the airport. Can you see how this system of visual devices ensures that different planes can stop in precisely the right spot to precisely connect with the jetway and allow weary travelers to exit the aircraft quickly and safely? The answers are built into place visually.

Compare this work area with the previous one. What is the story this area tells about the level of work that is possible here? Can you see how it is starved for information? Can you hear the questions that the lack of visuality triggers in this area? Where do we go for the answers? Which gate area looks more like your company? What is the impact of that?


Implement what you learn from the Visual Workplace Summit and you may never have to repeat yourself again. Imagine how productive you could be if not for the interruptions to answer questions. Imagine what workers could accomplish if they were not wondering what to do, doing it wrong, then having to do it again. Find the answers to countless asked-and-unasked questions at the Visual Workplace Summit, Oct. 26–28, at the Marriott City Center in Salt Lake City. For more information, visit www.visualsummit2010.com


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.


Visual Control

About the article "information deficits and the visual workplace" i totally agree, and i want to let you know a recent issue that i solved with the help of visual control.
After all production steps, we receive the lots "finished" in order to perform the respective final inspection. Few weeks ago, i received several lots, more that we can measure, and the problem was rapidly mentioned and indicated from production supervisor and others like "bottleneck at final control".
I answered this issue with a clearest flow concerning the responsabilities for every one related with final inspection flow and visual control to always identify easily the next order, like that we will work better and we will not forget some Manufacturing Order to make final inspection, and that isn't all, we can identify how many orders per day we are receiving and in consecuence we can see if we have issues at process (flow) or planning.
Visual control is a very good communication tool (is an excellent help to explain the problems).

Mario Rodríguez
Sonora, México.