Work by Seeing It. Make it Visual.

unnamedLean 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.

This is the 8th article of our series showing how to develop a truly Lean Management System. Control your processes using VISUAL MANAGEMENT.unnamed-1 









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.
VS Board for BlodThe 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.

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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 isimagesworking 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 imagesare 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.

VIDEO: Visual Management at Steffes Corporation. 

Why Visual Management

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You Get What You Measure. Measure Right


There is a lot of truth in the old adage “what you measure is what you get”. This is certainly true for industrial companies and most other organizations. As you progress with your lean journey you will soon find that the measures you have been using for years are not only unhelpful, but actively harmful to what you are trying to achieve through lean thinking and methods. Shown below there are five keys to the design of a great lean performance measurements in your company.

This is the 7th article of our series showing how to develop a truly Lean Management System.

unnamed-1Key #1. Our measurements must be developed to support your company’s unique strategies.

There is no one-size-fits-all set of lean performance measurements. Each company must develop their own measurements to support their strategy, their market, their products, and their customer needs.

If you develop the measurements yourselves the measurement system will work better in your company. If you have the teams develop their own measurements then your people will understand them and know how to use them for improving their results.

Key #2. Our measurements be must designed for your company’s specific operations.

The starting point for designing lean performance measurements across your company is to clearly define your company’s strategy. This strategy may be a formal strategic plan, or it might be a less formal explanation of what the leaders of the company value in order to achieve success in their business.

The best way to develop measurements is to use a “lean performance measurements linkage chart”. Starting with the company strategy, we develop measurements that show the achievement of the company’s strategic goals. These measurements are usually easy to define if the company’s strategic objectives are clear and concise.

03 PerfMeasures LinkChart WBLg

Example of a Lean Performance Measurement Linkage Chart

The next step is to link these strategic measurements with measurements at (for example) a plant level. Within the plant we link measures to value stream performance, and finally to measurements in production cells, other operational processes, and administrative processes.

As you can see in the picture (above) the linkages look at the goals at each level and the critical success factors at the lowest level. This enables the company leaders and their value stream teams to think through what is critically important and should be measured. It is this process that enables us to bring the number of measurements down to “the vital few”.

Key #3. We must work hard to use the smallest number of measurements.

The fewer measurements the better, providing you have selected the right ones based on strategy, markets, products, and customer needs. Companies that have “dashboards” containing many complex measurements created by computer system each month have a poor understanding of the business. Companies with five or six well chossen value stream measurements, for example, have their business under control because the local people in each value stream, process, and support department can understand and use these measurements.


One Example of the Development of Lean Performance Measurements Across the Company

If your people clearly understand the handful of measurements they can take responsibility to use the measurements to control their own processes, improve the processes, and increase customer value.

Lean measurements are designed to foster continuous lean improvement, not to monitor past performance. They must NOT be used – in the traditional way – to punish those who fall short. Rather they are used to motivate and empower people.

Key #4. We need different measurements at different levels of the organization.

Most companies need at least three levels of measurements; strategic, value streams, and cells/processes. You can see this on the Performance Measurements Linkage Chart example above.

The strategic level shows the company leaders the overall performance of the business each month, typically. The purpose of the strategic measurements is for the senior managers to see if they are achieving their strategic goals; operationally and financially. (See Lean Accounting in a Nutshell for more information of financial reports.)

The value stream managers and their team need to know the performance of the value stream each week so that they can use this information for the continuous improvement of the value streams. The results show the problems, the problems can be immediately investigated, the root causes understood, and changes made to create improvement.

The people working in the cells, processes, and support areas need 2 or 3 much more frequent measurements that enable them to constantly monitor and control their work so as to serve the customers well and consistently conform to standardize work.

Key #5. Our measurements must be visual and (ideally) updated by hand.

This bring us to the human side of the measurements. If you want your people to use the measurement and take appropriate action at all levels, the measurements must be displayed visually. People better understand visual measurements. Visual measurements enable groups of people to discuss issues and improvements. Visual measurements enable the teams to see the “big picture”. Visual measurements are combined with visual explanations of causes and the impact of improvements. Companies with fat reports coming from the computer system – usually monthly or later – are missing the point and purpose of the measurements. It all about the people; not the numbers.

Many companies find that they get better understanding, commitment, and results if the people using the measurements also have the task of gathering the data and updating the visual measurement boards. This is NOT a requirement, and if the work of data gathering is burdensome, then it is good to have the computers create the reports. But the more the people at all levels are actively involved in the creating their own measurements, the more likely they are to take responsibility and create improvement.


For lean companies, operational performance measurements are just as important as the financial results. Financial results do not happen on their own. They are the results of continuous improvement of the company’s primary operational processes; sales & marketing, product design & development, operational processes, purchasing, improved quality and capacity usage, etc..

Truly lean companies integrate their operational and financial control systems so that the value stream managers have a full picture of what is needed to create customer value, grow the business, and make tons of money. The ideal measurements and financial reports are on single pages, focused, and meaningful. That is the way to create empowerment, control, and improvement. (see information about the “Box Score”)

You can not run a lean company with the traditional measurements – operational and financial. If you do, you will not be able to sustain lean manufacturing, lean product development, lean sales and marketing, etc. because your traditional measurements will “push back” against your lean hard work. Moreover, you can not have two sets of measurements; one for financial control and another for operational control.


  1. Replace the traditional measurements with performance measurements that are designed to motivate and monitor lean behaviors and improvement.
  2. Develop a set of measurements throughout the organization that thoroughly reflect the company’s strategy and goals.
  3. Post the measurements (at all levels) visually so everybody can easily see and understand the results and the causes of the results.
  4. Make sure that as the people work to improve their measurement results they will be actively working to achieve the company’s strategic goals.
  5. Make this an integral part of the lean culture you are developing within your value stream and indeed the whole enterprise.


For more information about Lean Performance Measurements:

Why Lean Performance Measurements? – Think Radical

Why Lean Performance Measurements? Keep the Faith


Best Performance Measure for the Manufacturing CEO

Wrong Measures Send Wrong Signals

Performance Measurements #1

Performance Measurements #2

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