What is Lean Visual Management?

Visual Management in the workplace.

This is a term used many, many times during a Lean journey.  It is used so much that it can also become white noise, a cliche term.  So if it is used a lot, what does it actually mean? What does it look like?

The answer, like many aspects of Lean, is simple in concept but can be made complex depending on the situation and the problem it is there to solve.

For me I like to break down the term visual management into two distinct areas:
How the workplace is organised - can I tell where everything is or should be with just a glance.

Performance and communication - can everyone in the team, across the business understand how they are performing, meeting key metrics, knowing that they are improving - again just at a glance?

Let’s take a look at the first aspect - the visual workplace.  
This is the domain of floor tape, shadow boards and 5S.  Using the latter, it is about having a workplace that is well organised, set up to support optimal flow of products or service.  It is about having the level of organisation so that everyone has the right tools accessible when they need them with minimal waste of movement or time.

In the 5S process it starts with decluttering and removing all the extra ‘stuff’ so it is easier to find and see where everything is. Then creating a place for resources, tools, equipment that minimises the need for extra movement and motion.  This follows the saying ‘everything has its place, everything's in its place’.

The main rationale for this has already been mentioned - supporting the optimal flow of the work required. It is set up to support teams to complete tasks efficiently with minimal frustration. The additional reasons for a visual workplace are many.  Safety is one. A well organised, tidy workplace is a safer workplace. It also allows an effective maintenance programme.  If at a glance you can tell if something is missing, broken or requiring repair, this can be managed more effectively than being in the middle of a job only to realise the one tool you need is not working or just not there!

The final reason why this approach is critical is that it supports standard work.  This might take a bit of time to achieve but when it happens can lift the performance of a team or business to the next level.  Having a workplace that has standard processes, supported by standard operating procedures (SOPs) can make not only the whole workplace more visual, but now we are making specific jobs and tasks visual.  This helps create more consistent outcomes, expectations and requirements are clearer and training of staff becomes focused and more effective.

My advice to people wanting to achieve an awesome visual workplace is to start small and start slow.  Work out what works for you and create the look and feel that suits your business.  Gradually add the different elements as the team becomes more aware of the new standards.  Better still once you have led the first few steps, let the team take the lead and create the next standards.  This process can take years to develop and there will be many iterations, so there will be a need to be patient.  You might want to start in one area of the workplace as a trial space, learn from the small scale process and use it as a template for the rest of the business.

The second element of visual management is all about supporting the performance of teams.  It is also about enabling clear and effective communication.  This is the domain of those big whiteboards, occasionally a few monitors or screens to show the required data or information.

Just like the visual workplace, Visual daily team boards don’t have to be complicated (nor tidy!) when you first begin.  Introducing the concept with 1-2 bits of information supported by 1-2 key performance measures up on a board can be enough to kick start the process.  The types of information used on these boards are as broad and varied as the team who use them.  What type of information depends on what problem you are trying to achieve, the type of business you have or even the different needs of various teams.  In my experience no team board (or boards) look alike even within the same business. They are there to help the relevant team to see how they are going, what work needs to happen and what improvements can be made.

Many teams also use them as a central communication hub, key messages from leadership, acknowledgement of team members, celebration - the list can go on. The key focus for me though should start with performance.  As an example DIFOTIS (delivery in full, on time and in spec) is a universal measure for teams to base themselves on.  It works if you provide a service, build something or provide products in some way.  A simple percentage measure calculated either daily, weekyl, monthly - whatever is relevant to the team can be displayed.  The goal is always 100%.

Other classic measures can be quality, safety, errors across multiple areas such as inventory, documentation or dispatch.  There are great ways at making this information visual so that teams can see at a glance where the issues are.  I have used these to show leadership how effective and easy it can be to guide their questions when doing a gemba walk.

The visual boards are also a great way to get an insight around team engagement. Boards that either have very little information, documents that are months old, or only a single example of handwriting tell me something is not right. It is telling me that the team is not using the board, perhaps they are not consistently meeting around it, talking about the performance - the list of issues are almost endless. The lack of content is a visual representation of what is happening in a team on a daily basis.

Finally these boards support another key element to teamwork- the daily stand up meeting, toolbox, huddle - whatever it is referred to in your business. The information on the board should guide the conversation, prompt or even preempt issues, key milestones, communication and planning that is relevant to the organisation.  For me both support each other, together they maximise the value of each tool.

All together these tools are designed to increase the transparency of the business, create clarity around expectations on what is required, when and to what standard.  It is about supporting better team work that positively impacts the overall organisational performance.


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