Go Visual

Oct. 1, 2006
Even if you consider yourself a lean organization and have process improvement programs and tools everywhere, your material handling operations could benefit from a visual boost. To say that it doesn't would be to say that no one has to waste any time loo

What does it mean to have a visual workplace? Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, president and founder of Quality Methods International Inc. (www.visualworkplace.com, Dayton, Ohio) and a speaker, writer and expert on visual workplace concepts, offers this definition: "A visual workplace is a selfordering, self-explaining, self-regulating and self-improving work environment—where what is supposed to happen does happen, on time, every time, day or night—because of visual solutions."

While visual cues often show up in "lean" workplaces, "doing" lean doesn't mean you automatically are "doing" visual or vice versa. However, both can work hand-in-hand when it comes to finding and eliminating waste; and establishing a level, flexible flow of information materials. Galsworth explains it this way in her most recent book "

Visual Workplace— Visual Thinking" (2005, Visual-Lean Enterprise Press): "The technologies of the visual workplace translate information deficits into visual devices and systems that populate the work environment, enabling people to execute the standards formulated by lean into performance that is both precise and complete."

Here are some examples:

  • Operators in the Incoming Inspections area at Parker Hannifin HPD, a hydraulics manufacturer in Marysville, Ohio, wanted co-workers to put materials in certain areas and not in others. Specifically, they didn't want people to put overflow materials in the aisles but to put it in designated areas. People did it anyway, ignoring the large Xs painted in the aisles.

This behavior did not change until the operators painted solid yellow lines to tell people: "This is the space for walking, not materials." To further convey that message, they painted the lines at angles, the way people really walk, as opposed to boxy grids.

According to Galsworth, the undesirable behavior changed instantly and permanently, making for a safer workplace where materials were exactly where they needed to be.

  • At the Winnipeg branch of Canadian Post, Canada's mail-delivery service, mail sorters used to move full containers of mail themselves. This interrupted their flow and wasted time. "Sometimes, it would mean looking around for a power jack" to move the mail containers, explains Steve Pierce, process excellence supervisor.

Canadian Post made two changes: It designated a material handler to travel a designated route to pick up full containers and it installed light bulbs for sorters to turn on when a mail container was full. That way, the material handler didn't have to stop his flow or the flow of sorters within their cells to find out if they had a full container. While Canadian Post has not measured the benefit of this system directly, it does support the even flow of mail through the plant.

"They [sorters] have noted a benefit in terms of flow within the cell by externalizing the work of removing full containers, rather than having worker's from within the cell stop their work to remove full equipment and replace it with empty equipment," Pierce says. "This helps maintain our operator balance within the work cell."

  • At the truck frame plant of Dana Corp. in Owensboro, Ky., a board with 25 lights hangs on the wall of the dock where transport trucks pick up completed frames. Sixty-nine miles away, at Toyota North America truck plant in Princeton, Ind., a switch activates a light on that board each time a finished truck rolls off the line. The lighted bulb signals material handlers to load one frame on the waiting truck. When all 25 bulbs are lighted, the truck is full and heads to Indiana. Using this simple visual device, the two plants have set up a system of standardization that: Tells employees what to do, keeps the flow of materials going at a level pace, removes the step of a double-check count on the trucks and eliminates finished goods inventory at Dana.

These examples just scratch the surface of what a visual workplace can accomplish. To really get started, know that only making visual improvements won't ensure ongoing improvement and financial benefit. Having a visual workplace goes deeper than keeping work areas clean and implements labeled. It's about taking advantage of the brain's tendency to seek patterns to promote desirable behavior—namely, work instead of wasted motion.

Galsworth's book describes these concepts in detail, including "The Eight Building Blocks of Visual Thinking" and "The Ten Doorways Into A Visual Workplace." However, she says the following actions will get an organization started:

  1. Do some basic reading and selfeducating on visual workplace concepts.
  2. Gather visual-making supplies such as bins, letter stencils, markers, folders, posters, etc.
  3. Review your own work area and habits. Look for unnecessary motion and note any time you need to search for information, to ask questions, or to look for a tool or material, whenever you break your flow in order to find something tangible or intangible to carry on with your work. Galsworth calls these "information deficits."
  4. Figure out where you want to locate the answer permanently, and make the answer a visual solution. It doesn't have to be elaborate. In one plant, for instance, an employee got sick of being bugged each morning while preparing the daily operations plan, which everyone needed to begin many tasks; so she decided to use a red clothespin and a paper tray. When the plan is ready, she places it in the tray and clips the clothespin on the side. Now other employees know just by glancing over if the schedule is ready or not.
  5. Talk up your improvement and ask others if you can help them set up a visual solution to their information deficits. In addition to supporting standards, improvement efforts and other product-centered goals, a visual workplace is a more pleasant and less stressful workplace, according to Galsworth. "The mind is a patternseeking mechanism," she says. "Once it sees a pattern, it obeys it; and a whole level of stress is eliminated."

Tonya Vinas, former managing editor of IndustryWeek, is a freelance writer and editor.

The 8 Building Blocks of a Visual Workplace

I-Driven: Building a visual workplace has to do with how individuals do their work. Everyone should ask himself or herself: How can I improve my work by using visual solutions to eliminate having to find things or information? Supervisors and managers also need to ask: What information do I need to share regularly, and how can I use a visual solution to eliminate the need for coworkers to waste motion by asking me for the information?

Standards: Making the details of your standards (technical and procedural) is the task of workplace "visuality." A visual workplace tells people what to do, how to do it and how to do it with the exactness that is required.

The Six Core Questions: A visual workplace answers these questions over and over: Where? What? When? Who? How many? How?

Information Deficits: An information deficit occurs when information vital to the task on hand is missing, wrong, late, unavailable or unknown. A visual workplace should eliminate information deficits.

Motion: Motion is waste. Forms of motion include searching, counting, recounting, looking for, wandering, wondering, guessing, checking, rechecking, handling, rehandling, asking, answering, interrupting, waiting, reworking, retesting, stopping.

Work: Work means moving and adding value. A visual workplace keeps work flowing evenly and flexibly.

Value Field: The value field is where people add value. Visual solutions keep people within their value field because they aren't somewhere else searching for information.

Motion Metrics: Asking people to track their motion will help them to see where wasted motion occurs. They must see the waste before they can correct it with a visual solution.

Source: Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Quality Methods International Inc.

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