When we write about visual management, we are usually talking about sophisticated quality management tools like Kanban, huddle boards, and the dashboards available in the KaiNexus application. These are all incredibly valuable applications of visual management in the workplace, but visual management is actually all around you. Understanding these everyday examples of visualization may help you apply the same principles more thoughtfully at work.
Visual management falls into six categories based on the purpose.
To Share Information With Others
This is the most basic application of visual management. Think of an Open/Closed sign on a business. You know right away whether to come on in. A simple bulletin board with tacked up notices is another example. Perhaps the most widely used approach is color coding. Everyone knows that green means go, yellow means use caution, and red means stop. Because the meaning of these colors is so widely understood, they are used well beyond traffic lights. I’ve seen dozens of spreadsheets with on track projects, happy clients, and approved projects all in green. It works because it's like a language that everyone can understand immediately.
To Communicate Standards
There’s an exercise used by many Lean teachers in which participants are given very specific instructions on how to draw a pig. Everyone has the same instructions, so the pigs should all look alike, right? Nope. Even given detailed text descriptions, people interpret the steps differently, and no standard is achieved. You’ll get far more consistent results by showing them what the final pig looks like. Images can be used in all sorts of ways to make sure that everyone understands what it looks like when the standard is achieved whether the standard is related to a product, an organized workspace, a correctly completed form, or almost anything else.
To Enforce the Standards
Sometimes visual management can be used to make it more difficult to ignore the standard than to comply. Templates for Word and PowerPoint documents are examples of this type of visual management. We notice this a lot in databases. For example, you might have a drop-down select field for “State,” rather than a text field so that you don’t end up with hundreds of states because Texas, Tx, and TX are all represented.
To Bring Attention to Irregularities
This is one you probably see a lot. Your phone flashes at you when the battery is low. There’s a light on your dashboard when your car is running too hot. Your fridge probably has a light that lets you know when the water filter needs to be replaced. The stop light flashes red when there’s something wrong with the system. There are non-electronic examples as well. If you have a peg board in your garage with a hook for every tool and an outline of that tool’s shape drawing on the board, you know right away when someone didn’t put your hammer away.
To React to Irregularities When They Occur
Of course, we believe that when irregularities occur, the right course of action is to figure out the root cause and solve the problem, but sometimes a “Caution, Wet Floor,” sign really comes in handy. Detour signs for road work, monitors for patient vital signs, and the buttons that have replaced andon cords on many factory floors are all examples.
To Stop Irregularities from Occurring in the First Place
The sign that says, “You must be this tall to ride this ride,” posted at the start of the line, prevents folks that are too small getting booted after a long wait. In theory, the gadget at the airport gate that shows the maximum size of overhead luggage should prevent oversized bags from making it onto the plane. (Here’s an excellent example of how visual management tools are only useful if they are used by employees.) I have a blender that won’t blend unless the arrow on the lid is properly aligned with the indicator on the handle to prevent accidents. The same is true for my bottle of Tylenol that won’t open unless the arrows are aligned, something a toddler is unlikely able to do. These are all examples of visual cues used to prevent problems.
Visual management is somewhat of a business buzzword these days, but it shouldn’t be implemented just for the sake of it. When you consider incorporating visualization, whether it be in improvement management software, or physically in the workspace, think about what you are trying to communicate or achieve and which of the categories of visual management can be of help.