Gwendolyn Galsworth  |  02/01/2009

Advancing Quality Through Visual Thinking

Precision results when the processes behind quality outcomes are made visual.

Excellence is a part of life, and we must strive for it, especially if our mistakes create problems for others. Mistakes are costly; they hit the bottom line. Some are costly enough to put us out of business.

The code word for a mistake-free state is quality. The process for achieving that begins long before gauges and calipers arrive on the scene. It’s a route with many stops, any of which can determine whether the final destination will be quality or the scrap heap.

The many stops look so routine and ordinary: choosing the right raw material, correct chemical formula, precise temperature, exact amount, specific tools, proper assembly procedures. The timely output of quality outcomes depends on each of these transactions. How can we ensure that they will all happen accurately and completely? The answer for me is visual thinking, which leads to visual devices and systems.

Visual devices ensure that each stop on the road to quality is executed perfectly, on time, and safely. A visual workplace doesn’t just minimize problems and mistakes; it can eliminate them completely for both final product quality and every transaction along the way.

Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking

Let’s begin by defining a visual workplace and visual thinking. Then we’ll look at some examples of visual quality devices used along the value stream. Finally, we’ll summarize some things to keep in mind when you apply the concepts and principles of the visual workplace.

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

The first part of the definition describes the company culture in terms of how the work environment functions, regardless if it’s a department, cell, work area, or the entire company:

Self-ordering. The environment exhibits an orderliness that’s embedded in the physical location via such visual devices as borders, home addresses, and ID labels. As a result, the order (called visual order) maintains and even corrects itself.

Self-explaining. The area and the work that occurs in it explain themselves. All of our vital questions are answered at a glance--where things are, what to do, who does it (or what machine or tool), and how and when to do it.

Self-regulating. Because it explains itself, the area and the people who work there can regulate itself and themselves.

Self-improving. Finally, with the above conditions in place, over time the area and the people who work there acquire the ability to self-correct, to become self-improving. They know when something is wrong (abnormal) and how to correct it. We say that the area is then functionally transparent.


The second half of the definition, where what’s supposed to happen does so in a timely, predictable way because of visual devices, describes a broader outcome: A visual workplace can reliably ensure the precise execution of standards--what is supposed to happen. This refers to both technical standards (e.g., dimensions, tolerances, specifications) and procedural standards. People working in an area where both types of standards have been made visual and are available at a glance, can and do reliably and predictably translate perceived value (i.e., what the customer wants) into received value (what the customer buys).

Information deficits . Creating a visual work environment means translating information into visual devices and embedding them into the physical fabric of the workplace. This is the tricky part because in most workplaces, vital information is often missing, inaccurate, incomplete, or late. In a visual workplace, we call these “information deficits.” You can bet that where vital information is missing, quality suffers.

An easy way to determine if you work in an information-starved area is to notice if you’re asked many questions during any given work day, or if you ask many questions. Pay attention to whether these are new questions or chronic repeats. If they’re repeats, you already know that’s costing the company a bundle, and customer satisfaction can’t be high.

Motion. In a visual workplace, we call asking or answering questions a form of motion defined as “moving without working.” Motion is the symptom; missing information is the cause. Other forms of motion include searching, wandering, wondering, counting and recounting, interrupting, waiting, and even stopping. These all occur because the vital answers we or someone else needs aren’t available at a glance, accurate, complete, or on time. Both motion and its cause, information deficits, play a role in helping you make the visual conversion from an information- starved workplace to one that’s information- rich. They are two of the eight building blocks of visual thinking.

Visual thinking. This is the ability to recognize motion and the information deficits that trigger it so that you can eliminate both through solutions that are visual. Increasingly, companies have begun to recognize that cost, risk, and time cling to missing information. When that happens, the organizations must commit to creating a workforce of visual thinkers. They realize that a group effort is required to address the thousands of failed informational transactions that can transpire every work day. Many hands, hearts, and minds are needed to translate missing, inaccurate, incomplete, or late information into visible meaning--that is, into visual devices. These don’t just affect performance; they create it. Visual devices don’t just affect quality; they make it possible.


Visual Quality

The tangible and intangible factors that contribute to quality are many and occur on varying levels of the workplace. Together they comprise the causal chain, a sequence of reasons that created that outcome. In the best of all possible worlds, all of those reasons or causes are good ones, and they result in a quality effect or outcome. For many companies, however, that’s a distant goal. For them the causal chain still contains a mix of good causes and a dose of bad ones. (And yes, “sequence” is a vital cause. The order in which things happen matters.)

So let’s begin to make the causes of perfect quality outcomes visual--knowable at a glance all along the causal chain.

The Six Core Questions

An easy way to demonstrate this is through the six core questions, another building block of visual thinking. Those questions are:




Who (or what machine or tool)?

How many (or how long)?



When the answers are absent to some or all of these core questions, a lot of motion results--corporate enemy No. 1. The workplace is starved for information, and quality is one of the first casualties. We use the six core questions to demonstrate how to create self-explaining systems up and down the value stream that define your work and everyone else’s.

The visual where

At the very top of the value stream, long before you see a quality part, subassembly, or final product, you’re faced with the first vital question: Where’s the right material? Where’s the correct work in progress (WIP) located? If you don’t know for sure and choose the wrong material instead, the possibility of a quality outcome vanishes. Figure 1 below shows visual devices that help us know where the material we are looking for is, quickly--or steers us away from the wrong stuff. I call these examples of the “visual where.”

The visual what

What exactly are we supposed to be making next? Do we know precisely, or do we have to guess and take the chance of producing something that wasn’t ordered? If there’s the slightest chance that we’ll select the wrong material, let’s put a visual device in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. Figure 2 below shows an excellent example of this principle.

The visual when

The term “when” in this core question refers to both the exact time something must or will be done, such as “When will this order be completed?” or, “When does this order need to be shipped?” “When” can also refer to the duration of time--the time required, for example, for a heat cycle, as seen in figure 3, below.

The visual who

On any given work day, dozens if not hundreds of people contribute some part of their work to make your work happen. Name them visually so you can get back to them for clarification, trace the status of material, find a needed tool, update them on changes, or simply say thank you.

When you consider the visual who, include the tools and machines that act as agents or helpers in the work for which you’re responsible. Make that connection visual as well. It’s all part of a quality outcome--the right quality, right cost, and right time, all done safely.

No doubt you can think of dozens of visual applications. Figure 4, below, illustrates a favorite.

The visual how many

Hands-on counting and measuring are only one way to determine the number, size, volume, or quantity of things, or simply the required setting. Yet there are other ways--visual ways--that are easier, more reliable, accurate, and effective, and don’t rely on judgment or chance.

When we target a visual response to the fifth core question of how many, we build the right answer into the physical workplace so that it resides there permanently for reference as we need it, as seen in figure 5, below.

The visual how

Reliable standards are the bedrock of all work. The “how” of operations (“How do I make it?” “How do I do it?”) is quite simply your standard operating procedure. There are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of standard operating procedures in action on your production floor every day. That’s a lot to remember. Less-than- photographic exactitude can lead to mistakes that can have a severely negative effect on people and the business.

By now you can guess the solution: Make it visual. Just be sensible: Only newcomers need a visual standard for every operation. Once you understand the fundamentals, use visual standards to remind yourself of details you might forget or have forgotten. The key here is to focus your visual standards on specific quality challenges, as seen in figure 6 on below. Effective use of visual standards helps us retain that focus on the tricky bits--not every single tiny little thing.

Keep in mind

As you’ve seen, understanding motion and the information deficits (or missing answers) that trigger it is vital to taking the struggle out of work. When your company makes the missing answers to the six core questions visual, it takes a powerful step forward toward improved quality, reduced cost, and on-time delivery. Following are three key factors to remember along the way:

Go beyond copycat. Don’t just copy visual devices you’ve seen elsewhere. Stop, look, and listen to the questions you ask and are asked of you. Then turn the answers into visual devices so you never have to ask or answer them again.

Amp the power. If a visual device touches but doesn’t solve the targeted problem, you need to make the device more powerful. This is exactly what happened when community engineers translated a “Slow-Down/Children Playing” road sign into speed bumps. Faced with only the road sign, speeding drivers had to decide to slow down. With speed bumps, the need to decide vanishes--they simply do it.

Look around. Look around your community and see what devices get you to do the right thing seamlessly or avoid the wrong thing. Can you adapt any of those for use in your own area? Can you go even further with them? Inventiveness and power are keys to highly effective visual devices.


As you work with the principles and concepts in this article, you’ll gradually understand what it means to think visually. The road to a visual workplace is full of exciting twists and turns and discoveries. Device by device, you’ll take more of the struggle out of your work and the work of others. Making quality visual is an indispensable step along the way to the ultimate destination: work that makes sense.


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.