Let’s start this article with a test: how would you interpret the picture below?
Unless you have lived all your life in a remote community and you do not know what a motor vehicle is, you can quickly guess that the picture illustrates the fuel gauge in a car. And this gauge shows the fuel tank is almost full (pointer close to the “F” letter), and it is simple to know when it will need to be refilled: when the pointer goes close to the red area and the “E” letter = empty tank.
This example is quite simple but illustrates the power of visual management. Our daily lives are full of graphical models such as traffic lights, road signs, emoticons, graphs, etc. And it can also be a powerful way to increase clarity and priorities in the working environment, leading to better performance.
According to the 3M Corp., people can process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and an average person only remembers about one-fifth of information they hear.
Visual management aims to communicate things intuitively, in such a simple and self-explanatory way that there is no (or very little) need for interpretation. So, in an industrial environment, it can be helpful in various areas such as communicating safety practices (necessity of PPEs, safe routes), stock levels, quality situations and managing tasks and performance, enabling continuous improvement.
When visual management is used to track performance, goals are developed and displayed for all to see, and it’s possible to understand how the team performs against a target “at a glance”. It also communicates critical issues and priorities in the area, improving transparency since it eliminates different versions of the truth, aligning the teams through clear and shared goals. Only the most essential information should be added to performance boards.
By having precise and updated data, the teams can discuss results together, setting actions to correct the deviations as soon as possible, exercising autonomy and accountability.
The status onsite is also clear to managers and people from other teams. Similarly, it’s also helpful in driving other groups to look at problems as a multidisciplinary team, creating a proper environment for listening, collaboration and resolution of issues. This all facilitates consensus between Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement.
It is key to remember that what is visual is important. This means that if the information is not essential and doesn’t need to be discussed, it does not need to be added to visual boards. Another crucial element is that standard work processes and visual communication need to work hand-in-hand. The effectiveness of both is multiplied when they are designed to work together. The boards do not work alone; people need to look at and discuss the issues regularly, taking action to keep things on track.
Visual communication is particularly beneficial when different shifts operate the same facility, increasing transparency and alignment and decreasing the lag in communicating issues and changes. Imagine how much time is spent and wasted in updating a shift coming back from several days off (typical in manufacturing and other work environments) using conventional written communication and using non-structured verbal communication.
It is essential to recognise that visual management tools should make lives easier, bringing alignment and better results. The information displayed should be accurate and easy to measure and update. Going digital can bring many advantages since a single version of the truth can easily be visualised using different sources of information. An added benefit is that aspects of information can be drilled down into more detail with a simple click, and actions can be registered and followed from anywhere, e.g. in different control rooms, making the process more agile and efficient than on physical boards. The digital board becomes the place to find essential information and actions, allowing people to focus on priorities, resolving problems, and creating and executing improvement opportunities. It also helps teams generate value by doing actual work and not creating non-value adding manual work to compile and update numbers.
When going digital, dedicated screens displayed at correct points (where activities happen) can maintain efficient communication.
Visual tools are an integral part of lean and continuous improvement since they create an environment where pointing out problems means finding opportunities. They promote a consciousness that problems constantly happen, and the sooner the problem is found and solved, the lower the impact.
Good boards and work processes, supported by higher management, will help people change their behaviour at the operational level as part of the bottom-up approach of the continuous improvement philosophy. In time, teams quickly recognise that a new way of working, organised around structured work processes and powerful visual boards. This new way of working makes life easier, increases engagement and slowly fosters new attitudes and a new culture of continuous improvement.