I wrote previously about the lack of any decent definitions of visual workplace (and visual management) on the web. In fact, what I found was dreadful. The original post is here. Amazingly, Wikipedia seems to have deleted the really terrible definition of visual management that I found before. Now I only find the Lean Manufacturing definition which interestingly references some pages which have been deleted. Wiki link is here.
I recently was interviewed for a financial trade journal article on Lean practices in financial processes, specifically foreign exchange management in this case. I found that the most effective description of visual workplace is the short description of what a visual plant looks like.
When you walk through that door on the corner of the manufacturing floor, you can see the entire floor from this location. You can see every workstation and all of the people at work. You quickly get a sense for the activity in the plant. You also note Andon lights or other prominent indicators which indicate that machines or other activities are performing as expected, or see some particular activity around a yellow or red light. There are no dividers on the floor and all of the workstations have low shelves and nothing above 5 feet. As you begin to walk the floor, you observe materials ready for activity in individual workstations and might ever observe one where materials are short and another where they have a full backlog. All of this without any detailed knowledge of the plant, products or even manufacturing! Just by walking around, even a non-manufacturing person will quickly understand the basic manufacturing process and where there are issues in the plant.
I think that I did a better job relating this off the top of my head. But I think that you get the meaning.
Now let’s compare this to a typical office environment. When you walk in, can you tell where the issues are? do you know who is getting behind? You probably cannot. In fact, the simple mechanisms for providing this kind of visibility for office based work are typically resisted from top to bottom. There is a false comfort in the lack of visibility. Folks in factories have discovered that visibility is your friend. It actually makes a bunch of people accountable for the work, not just the individuals. It also makes it easier for others to come to your aid when needed.
As a final note, many systems which support office work could easily enable better visible workplace attributes. Unfortunately, most of these systems were designed by people who do not use them every day. Not only are they poor in terms of visible workplace attributes, they are often very hard to use. A double whammy so to speak. Much of my focus in this blog will be on practices for making work visible, repeatable, and high quality. Too many Lean people either want nothing to do with the office or they just provide limited value training.
I will provide some specific illustrations of these in some future posts. In the meantime, reflect on whether you can walk around your workplace and “see the performance.”