Lean organizations of all kinds make strong use of visual management. Visual management means that – as far as possible – people’s work is scheduled, organized, and controlled by themselves, and the information they need can be easily seen on schedule boards, visual work instructions, and simple progress boards.. Their work is not “hidden” inside computer systems or desk drawers.
There is a simple reason why lean companies focus on visual work methods. Humans are visual creatures, and we work much more successfully when the work is visually controlled. The other great advantage of visual management is that it saves a great deal of time. When work schedules and organizations are visually controlled, there is no need for supervisors and managers to spend time assigning work and scheduling on-the-fly.
What Does Visual Management Look Like?
The most obvious aspect of visual management is the widespread use of operations boards. In many lean companies there are operations boards at each cell and work station, and there is a visual board for each value stream. Similar boards are used in new product development, sales and marketing, the office processes, and executive meetings.
The boards are used to show what work needs to be done today or this hour. They are used to report the status of the work, who does the work, the issues and problems that arise, the action needed to ensure the quantity and quality, and to report completion of the work. Visual management is best when the work-teams control and schedule their own activities, based on the current needs of the customers and the company.
Visual work boards are often placed immediately where the work is done. Employees and managers can immediately see the schedule and the progress. This eliminates a lot of wasted time asking what to do next, how to resolve a problem, searching for information. Well organized, visual processes improve productivity, costs, quality, on-time completion, customer service, inventory levels, and machine reliability.
Visual Control of Materials. (What, Where, When, How Many)
This goes back to the adage of “a place for everything, and everything in it’s place”. Lean companies have carefully organized production areas that clearly show where the materials should be, how many items, and the sequence of use. Many simple methods are used to achieve this. Squares drawn on the floor show how many are needed and when the items need replenishment. Colored lines painted on racking show the maximum and minimum number of boxes required. Liquids or powders stored on weighing scales so the amount available and amount needed can be controlled.
This kind of visual management makes it is easy to replenish materials, to identify shortages, and ensure everything is available before starting a production job. Replenishment is often done using visual kanbans. If, for example, we need 5 pallets of an item in stock, then each pallet has a kanban card attached. When a pallet is used, the kanban card replenishes it from the supplier.
These method largely eliminate the traditional stock counting at year-end or quarter. The materials are under control constantly, and we are not required to “stock count”.
Making this Right
Clear and visually available standard work diagrams enable everybody to know how to make the products, or other tasks, and do it right every time. Similarly, specifications, diagrams, drawings, photographs, and videos are used to visually show the correct process. There are often comparison diagrams showing common errors and mistake-proofing (poke yoke). Clear and standardized inspection and verification processes are also shown visually in the work centers.
Who Does It and When Is It Done
Visual management is used to ensure that the right people with the right skills are assigned to appropriate tasks. It is common to have assignment boards that show who isworking on which tasks or projects, and when they will be available. This is complemented with visual boards showing each persons’ certification for the company’s tasks with various levels of complexity, and where they are currently working so they can be easily found. This visual information makes it easy to assign people to new tasks. This is particularly important for companies that work as “job shops” and have a wide variety of products and processes, and widely different products and services.
Visual Management for Senior Leaders
One of the most successful visual management methods adopted by lean organizations is the “Obeya room”. The Japanese word just means “a large room” but it has been adopted by many companies. The purpose of the Obeya room is to visually organize and monitor the company’s strategic plans.
Visual Management in the Offices, Design Departments, Sales/Marketing, and Administration
As with all aspects of lean management, these visual methods work in the same way throughout the company. Visual methods to control, report, and expedite product designs are achieved in similar ways to production processes, although the work often takes longer, is more diverse, and people work in parallel across multiple projects. This kind of work lends itself to visual management. I cringe every time I see people pulling up Microsoft Project software and thinking they have visual management. Apart from the fact that anyone over 40 years of age can not read the tiny type, these project management apps should be replaced with clear, hand-written (or post-it’s) in visual control boards.
Sales and Marketing has similar issues to that of product development because they often they need to communicate across the long distances. This makes a computer based planning and control system a necessity. But it is again important to create a system that is simple and visual so that people can effectively use the information.
Administrative tasks are a given for visual management. Much of the administrative processes are highly standardized but irregularly used. These include recruitment, month-end financial close, customer relations, etc.. In these situations standardized visual management is a must to ensure the quality and consistency of the process.
Homo Sapiens are visual creatures. To achieve fast, effective, and consistent results we must use visual thinking and methods. Simplistically said, the fewer computer transactions, the lower the waste, the better the process, and more engaged the people. This is a recipe for success and improvement.