Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Visual Controls Make "Cents"

As many of you know, in addition to consulting, I am an adjunct professor at a college with a large number of international students. Normally I teach statistics, but recently I had the opportunity of familiarizing newly arrived international students with U.S. cultural and business communications.

As part of the workshop for new international students, I engaged the class in a discussion about what they have found to be problematic since their arrival in the United States. Surprisingly the one reoccurring topic that challenged the students, was our coins.

At first I was stunned. Of all the things in this country, the most challenging to newly arrived foreigners was our coins? After considering this for a moment, it made perfect sense. How?

Think about it, the designed system lacks visual clues; it relies almost entirely on the tribal knowledge of the user. It is hardly intuitive; the smallest coin, the dime, is worth more than the larger penny and nickel! Now combine that with the fact that none of our coins have large, easy to read numbers denoting worth; we can “cents” and understand how this combination can pose problems for newly arrived foreigners.

Given the lack of effective visual controls on the coins, it’s easy to comprehend why the newly arrived find this challenging and frustrating.

Now ask yourself, what in your business is not visually intuitive and causes problems? Simply put, are problems going undetected because the visuals controls in your workplace are ineffective? Can you walk into a material storage location and see what needs to be reordered? Can the leaders tell the status of the business simply by walking through the facility and observing?

Excellent examples of effective visual controls are the arrival and departure boards at an airport. First of all, these boards are easy to use, clearly labeled, and very intuitive. Even if you have never been in an airport before, you can look at the board and obtain the information about your flight. Not only does the board display the information, it will provide visual alerts by flashing when flights are changing status.

This information is not closely held and limited to only the airport’s managers. The status of every flight into and out of the airport is readily available and viewable by all. Just as importantly, the board provides only the necessary information and doesn’t overwhelm the traveler with unnecessary details. The required information is freely placed into the hands of those who need it and problems are easy to see.

Now expand on that concept and apply it your business. Does your staff know the status of inventories, deadlines, and other critical information? Are your visual controls improving information flow and process control?

More importantly, what benefits can you experience from an effective visual workplace?

Higher job satisfaction – Individuals experience less stress because they have the required information to perform their jobs
Safer work environment – Walkways are clearly labeled keeping individuals at a safe distance from moving vehicles and machinery
Higher quality – Fewer defects/errors as problems become easy to see
Greater efficiencies - Required information/material is readily available resulting in less downtime
Improved appearance – Workplace is neat and orderly
Improved Bottom Line – Reduced errors plus greater efficiency equals a better bottom line.

A visual workplace, which is often times associated with a 5S program, should be self-ordering, self-explanatory, and self-regulating.

If your business is experiencing problems because you can’t tell the status of the business simply by walking through and using tools deployed as part of a visual workplace, then I encourage you to consider launching a lean sigma program. It makes “cents.”

Please leave your comments or email me directly at royce.williard@gmail.com

Learn more about the author by checking my LinkedIn profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/roycewilliard

 2009, The Williard Group

Photo Source:

Figure 1: Public Domain Photo of U.S. dime. Source: Clipart Graphics