I Can See Clearly Now

Using visual systems in your business operations can help you quickly tell if things are going as planned, and help you take immediate action if they are not

Rebecca A. Morgan
Inc.com – 2007

How many times have you thought, “If only I’d known sooner,” or “How did something that important get overlooked?” Significant information must be accurate, timely, and readily available. Sitting here in May it’s hard to do much to improve April. We need an easy way to tell how things are going, as they are going.

Well-designed visual systems do that and can improve most every business. Simply put, visual systems are designed to make it easy for anyone to recognize abnormal from normal at a glance.

The term visual system is generic and is intended to include all five senses. For example, natural gas is odorless. Odor is added to make it easier to detect. It helps you discern normal conditions (no gas leak) from abnormal (gas leak) at a glance – or in this case, at a sniff.

The traffic system is another example of a visual system. Some traffic signs can be understood without being read, the shape and color communicating its purpose clearly at a glance. This kind of consistency is important to any communication system including those found in businesses.

Here are some suggestions for implementing a visual system into your operations.

Action: Ask each area of your business to identify its top one or two basic operational questions that must be answered routinely and should be highlighted when abnormal conditions exist. Ask them to design an easy-to-maintain and easy-to-see visual system for accomplishing this. Focus on need to know, not nice to know.
Example: One company I worked with identified “Is the equipment that should be running running?” as a basic operational question. They hung a plastic sleeve on each machine. It either contained a picture of the employee who should be running it or a “Not Needed Today” sign. When on break, the employee slid a “Will return at 9:30” sign in the sleeve. It was easy for anyone to tell abnormal (what they saw didn’t match the sign) from normal at a glance.

Stop and speed limit signs deliver a message that our government believes is important to public safety; as drivers we may not see it or may choose to ignore it anyway. There are potential ramifications of either.

The decision to add traffic lights is based on the likelihood and potential loss of the signs being overlooked or ignored. The lights elevate our system to one intended to grab attention and then deliver the message. Similarly the beep-beep-beep sound of a truck backing up and the jarring rumble strips on the side of the highway are both designed to grab our attention to deliver a message.

Action: After using the trial system for a few days or weeks, examine if it communicates effectively to the right people.
Example: The sleeve system, while an improvement, required that someone who could take action be at the machine, look at the plastic sleeve, and consider how well it matched the observation. The system also failed to communicate the cause and status of any abnormal condition – important questions asked and answerable by a variety of people.

The team created a board indicating each machine across the top and the primary causes of abnormal conditions (for example, personnel, maintenance, materials) down the side and placed it on a convenient wall. Green magnets were placed at the intersections of the machine and the listed causes if all was well (normal). Whenever a problem arose, the operator or supervisor replaced the relevant green magnet with a red one.

When the responsible person saw the red magnet, he would initial the board next to it. When he determined how to address the problem, he added limited but key notes next to the red magnet, including the expected date/time of return to normal. The colors, notes, and location of the board provided self-service information about the number and status of key problems. Problems became visible, and so, too, the failure to address them.

The next level of visual system communication guides behavior but does not force it. The white striping in parking lots communicates where we are supposed to park. We may not comply, but know we should. When snow covers the white lines, the lot’s vehicle capacity is greatly reduced by the inability to see the lines. That reduction is a measure of the value of visible lines.

The most complete level of a visual system is called a guarantee, though the word guarantee can mislead. Railroad crossings have signs, lights, the sounds of the train and the crossing arms that block the road. Someone can still ignore all that, drive around the arms, and into the path of a train.

Action: Examine your trials to consider what level of control is needed. Critical information mayliterally need more bells and whistles. The sign of a good visual system is that people willingly use it because it makes their jobs easier. Improve the system simply by asking “What else do you need to know to do your job well?”

Regardless of the problem or opportunity, it is easier to address when you can see it clearly.

© 2007 Fulcrum ConsultingWorks, Inc.