Visual management tools surround us. Although they are so ubiquitous, we might not even think about them. When your car is about to run out of gas, a light will alert you to the problem. Your fitness app may even show you how close you are to your daily goal. Your brain can quickly process these visual clues and use the information to make decisions.
The Lean business approach takes advantage of this fact and leverages several powerful tools for management and improvement. You don’t have to be all in on Lean to take advantage of them. Any organization striving for continuous improvement can benefit.
What do Visual Management Tools Do?
We’ll get into the specifics of some of the most popular Lean visual management tools in a minute, but it is useful to point out that visualization has some important goals. These tools aim to do one or more of the following:
- Share Information with Others
- Communicate Standards
- Enforce the Standards
- Bring Attention to Irregularities
- React to Irregularities When They Happen
- Prevent Irregularities from Occurring
Lean organizations focus on delivering maximum value to the customer by eliminating waste and creating processes that produce consistent, predictable results. These visual management tools are used to achieve those aims.
Process Control Charts
Process control charts (sometimes called “process behavior charts”) are graphs or charts that plot out process data or management data (outputs) in a time-ordered sequence. They typically include a center line, a 3-sigma upper control limit, and a 3-sigma lower control limit. There might be 1- or 2-sigma limits drawn in, as well. The center line represents the process mean or average (and sometimes the median).
The control limits represent the process variation and help users recognize "common cause" variation, which is expected within the process and “special cause” variation which indicates a problem. Trends can be analyzed to determine if the process is stable.
Organizations that practice continuous quality improvement use control charts to provide a common language for talking about process performance and behavior, make informed decisions about which processes to leave alone and which to target for improvement, limit the need for inspection and determine process capacity based on past performance and trends. They also create the baseline for future improvements.
Kanban is a visualization technique designed to manage and improve workflow. This approach uses visual cues to balance demand with available capacity and remove system-level bottlenecks. Work items are represented visually to give participants a view of progress and process, from start to finish - usually via a Kanban board. Work is pulled through the process as capacity permits, rather than work being pushed into the process when requested.
Toyota first used the Kanban approach to limit work in progress and minimize inventory using cards to indicate that the inventory needed to be replenished. Today, many organizations use digital Kanban boards to represent workflow and reduce friction within processes.
Huddle boards serve the useful purpose of visualizing the progress of improvement projects. At specified intervals, teams gather to discuss opportunities for positive change and work together to remove any impediments to improvement. Huddle boards visualize work, promote team collaboration, and place a focus on improvement.
Although some organizations use physical huddle boards, the shift to digital huddle boards is well underway. New software applications make it possible to get all the visualization and collaboration benefits without the limitations of a physical board hanging on a wall. Cross-functional teams can work on improvement projects even if they are in different locations. The results of improvement can be measured over the long haul and communicated to the entire organization, and all improvement work is captured, adding to the repository of tribal knowledge.
Gemba walks are a favorite Lean visual management technique, but they can be used by any leader to become more connected with the people and process they manage. During a Gemba walk, the manager visits the place where work is done to observe, show respect to the employees, and potentially identify opportunities for improvement.
By visiting the place where work is done (Gemba means “the real place,” in Japanese), leaders gain valuable insight into the flow of value through the organization and often uncover opportunities for improvement and learn new ways to support employees. The approach is a collaborative one, with employees providing details about what is done and why.
5S is a workplace organization method that uses a list of five Japanese words which have been translated into English as "Sort," "Set In order," "Shine," "Standardize" and "Sustain." The five words that start with S describe how to organize a work space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order. 5S is also known as 5S is also known as “visual control, visual workplace, or visual factory.”
It is not just about housekeeping, but concentrating on reducing waste, based on maintaining the standards and the discipline required to manage the organization—all achieved by upholding and showing respect for the workplace. When a workplace is well ordered, it becomes easy to recognize when something is missing or out of place.
Whether you use one or all of these techniques, adding the element of visual management, especially when assisted by technology, will help you accelerate the pace of improvement, reduce irregularities, and keep everyone engaged.