A Visual World

May 13, 2018

I have recently returned from travels around the East and spent a lot of time in both China and Japan which was quite an experience.

Like many of us that have travelled to these places without the ability to converse in Mandarin or Japanese, getting around solo was a daunting prospect, particularly since my navigational skills in the UK are not known for their accuracy.

Whenever our environment changes, we are always searching for clues and our eyes are our best asset with up to 80 per cent of our impressions accumulated by means of our sight. So when we go to an area that we have not been in before we need to try and see our way through it. The ease of this is determined by what we assentation from the messages picked up by our eyes.

We are thankfully well aware of this and have been for centuries so we help ourselves by means of signs, colours, shapes, symbols and, more recently, electronic media.

Think about driving around the UK before the days of the Sat Nav. We could navigate pretty well around areas that we had never been before by using the road markings and signs. We know where to go, where we cant go, when to stop and when we can go.

The real test for me of how well our efforts of showing how to interact with and understand an environment is the ability of a new comer to understand the local rules. And further, follow them without having to find someone suitable to ask. A task that took considerable time in my recent destinations.

Whenever I arrive at a new workplace I always try and understand what is going on without having to ask the team. This is the test of how well they have understood the principles of visual management and understood the value of implementing them. We are of course trying to remove the many wastes associated with not understanding. It is this not understanding that drives extra time into our work and that is time that could be used for doing something much more value adding. The team should not have to walk around or wait to ask someone. There should be no assumptions or guesswork of what to do next, there should be no mistakes and so no physical, or mental, rework.

This is the principle of Visual Management. We use it everyday to make choices about what to do next. The better the visual, the more chance we have of obtaining the correct understanding and making the right decision first time.

It is critical that the team can always understand their current state without help. The team must be able to see their total process flow and understand it quickly and simply, without mistake. Is it doing well or is it in trouble. So I always watch the people working within the process. Do they know what is going on? Are they going about their work effectively or looking frustrated?

This can be a really good health check of how well Lean methodology has been implemented into a workplace. Are the importance of standards known and supplemented with visuals. Do the team know what they need to achieve and if they are on target. Can they identify a miss and are they using the data to drive their reactions.

It’s worth trying yourself. Go to a place in your organisation that you rarely visit. Is it clear what is going on there? How is the performance of the process? Do you know where you can and can’t go? In manufacturing environments – are you safe?!

Another point of interest to me is how often hosts are keen to show me the new machines, the intricacies of an expensive software package and the technicality of a specific task. I like to look over their shoulder and see what is going on between these tasks. I like to concentrate on seeing the flow. I look for the inventory on a shop floor which tells me more about the state of the process than the specification of a machine. I look for piles of paper, for queues of people and for the frustration levels of the workers who can’t perform their jobs with ease.

Visual Management is a key part of being able to see what is going on, whether we are doing well against the requirements and where are we falling short. We must be able to understand our environment, we must be able to see flow and ultimately, we must be able to see a situation or problem quickly and react.

I look forward to this principle being recognised in China as I may well have seen more of the interesting cities than I did.