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Source: Business-improvement.eu
Lean: Value adding organization
Visual management Visual Management is the foundation for process improvement
The power of a ‘talking’ shop floor
By Dr Jaap van Ede, editor-in-chief Business-improvement.eu, 13-09-2022.
Available in Dutch on Procesverbeteren.nl

Almost anything can be visualised: the flow in a factory or office, work standards, problems, deviations, improvement goals, improvement actions, team work... Even thought processes!

An improvement culture also starts with visibility. An inspiring mission, playable like a film, will give direction. And by frequently visiting the gemba - the place where a problem or conflict is going on - you make yourself visible as a manager. The shop floor then ‘speaks’ to you.

Therefore: a 'talking shop floor' is the best foundation for process improvement ! 

Standardisation is often regarded as the basis for process improvement. After all, if there is no best way to perform a certain task, you don't know whether it can be done better. Standardisation also makes process steps reliable, so that these can be more closely alligned to each other. You are then able to produce Lean, that is: with little buffers of materials.

A good culture is another important pillar of process improvement. If everyone does not contribute enthusiastically, it will not work.

Yet, there is an even more important foundation, on which both standardisation and culture rest. This foundation is visualisation. On one hand, this concerns things you can already see, such as intermediate stocks, but with a lack of overview and context.

On the other hand, it concerns things that are normally hidden. Examples are the mission of a company, thought processes, or personal conflicts.

Visual management at Scania
Visual management at Scania: at a glance the steps in their production process are visible, including any disruptions.

Visual management

Did you ever visit a Lean production site, like a factory of Toyota, or in the Netherlands for example Scania or Auping? In such a factory, you can see at a glance how the production process runs. From parts to end products, including what is going as planned and what is not, and including improvement actions that are underway.

By just looking around, everyone knows what to do, or where there are problems. In Lean terminology, this is called visual management. This works much better than consulting an ERP system from behind your desk, in which the data are often not correct anymore!

During the corona-crisis, visual management was also applied in shops. There, arrows and symbols indicated how to walk and where to stand. Another example of visual management in daily life are the road markings and signs, which direct car traffic in the right direction.

Visual management in the office during the corona crisisVisual management in the office during the corona crisis. Lines and boxes make clear where you can sit and walk, with enough distance to others.

Talking shopfloor

A 'talking' shop floor 'tells' you what is happening now, and what should happen next. It also answers questions such as: Are there deviations? What is the next order I have to work on? Where are the matching materials and tools?

If someone doesn't know the answers to these kind of questions, think of ways to prevent this in the future with visual management!

A talking shop floor also raises new, more profound, questions. For example: Why is this intermediate stock lying here? Why is rework needed here? What are they waiting for at this location? Such questions are an enormous source of inspiration for continuous improvement.

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Often, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about visual management, is making the production stream - the flow of materials to end products - transparent. However, much more things can be made visible! In fact, almost every process improvement tool uses visualisation!

Even thought processes can be visualised. That way, you can share your train of thought, and ask others to think along with you. You can also have your thought process checked by others, making you an increasingly better problem solver. All methods for identifying root causes work with visualisation, from fishbone analysis to the thinking tools from the TOC and A3 management. Also an in-depth approach such as Problem Solving & Decision Making (PSDM) of Kepner-Tregoe relies on making thought processes visible.

Most important aspect
Below, I will show for the most common improvement tools, how strongly these rely on visualisation. So much, that visualization is the most important aspect of process improvement!

What you cannot see, you cannot improve, whether it concerns problems, root cause analyses or personal conflicts. This is not only true in production environments, this is true at every place in any organisation.

The Dutch childcare benefits scandal is a good example of a confusing situation, in which information was shared in a poor way, in this case between the executives at the Tax and Customs Administration, the ministries and the Lower House. Think of the well-known game in which a row of children passes a message along. This message then gradually changes to something completely different.

Due to 'adding water to the wine' of alarming messages from the tax authorities, the House of Representatives had no insight in what was really happening. The result: citizens came in serious trouble, and now the government has to deal with a huge damage claim. 

After this sidestep, I return to the Lean tools. I will show how these do make things visible in time!

Standardization and 5S
Let me start with the standardisation of a work task, such as the best way to perform an assembly step. Assembling a piece of furniture at home is a good example. Often, pictures make it clear at a glance how to do this, much better then long and tedious texts.

Structuring workplaces with 5S also relies heavily on visualisation. 5S stands for five steps, all beginning with an S. The steps are: Sort, Set (order), Shine (clean), Standardize and Sustain. Often, colours and lines are used to indicate where each material belongs. Regarding tools, shadow boards are often used to show where tools should be placed when not in use. If something is missing from such a board, this is a very strong visual signal.

Visualisation also helps to solve machine malfunctions. For example, you can make a draw of the normal operation of a machine, focusing on the most error-prone steps. Those critical steps often turn out to be the cause of quality problems.

In a Lean factory, anyone can stop production if they suspect a problem with their work. In fact, machines often stop by themselves in such a case. This Japanese principe is called Jidoka. Google Translate first thought this meant 'porcelain' and later 'magnetization', but its true meaning is autonomation!

Jidoka disrupts the flow temporarily, to prevent errors from being passed on to the next production step, in which case these are only being discovered after having been 'built into' large numbers of end products. Jidoka actually is a built-in quality inspection per production step. Jidoka makes it immediately visible if there is an (imminent) problem.

In this factory of truck manufacturer Scania, tools check themselves whether they are used as expectedIn this factory of truck manufacturer Scania, tools check themselves whether they are used as expected. If not, an alarm follows, and production might even be stopped.

If there is a problem on a certain workstation, a signal is visible at that location. This signal is called an Andon. It is Japanese for "paper lantern". In practice, it is usually a kind of traffic light that changes its color to orange or red.

The indicator lights in the dashboard of a car are also examples of Andons. These lights indicate that something is wrong with the process 'car driving'.

An Andon works best when it is not only clear what is going wrong, but also what the response should be, which might include asking for help.

An Andon works best when it is not only clear what is going wrong, but also what the response should be
After an Andon signal, here a team leader steps in to solve the problem, preferably within the takt time of the production step concerned. In this case, this person even has the word Andon on his back!

Kanban and POLCA
Kanban and POLCA cards are another form of visualisation. A Kanban, Japanese for visual card, sends the following signal to a supplying production step (or to a supplier): 'I have used x pieces of this component, please send me x new ones'. This way, the flow across the shop floor is regulated on the basis of consumption, and no stock piling or congestion occurs.

Sometimes Kanban is not an option, because there are too many product types and materials, for which you would need many different Kanban cards. In this case there is an alternative: POLCA.
A POLCA card sends the following signal to a supplying production step: 'I now have free capacity to further process semi-finished products that I receive from you. Therefore, you are allowed to produce those, and hand them over to me'.

Kanban and POLCA both regulate the work in such a way, that the throughput is maximised.

The amount of materials that an external supplier sends, can also be controlled with Kanban cards
The amount of materials that an external supplier sends, can also be controlled with Kanban cards

Poka Yoke
Poka Yoke, Japanese for error prevention or error proof, makes the chance of mistakes as small as possible. An example is a plug that only fits in one socket, or a (green) color code that shows within which range a measured value is ok. Sometimes also light and sound signals are used. An example is the sound you usually hear in a car when you forget to fasten your seatbelt, or when you leave your car lights on.

Smart solutions for Poka Yoke are also available. For example virtual reality glasses, that show you what needs to be done, e.g. during a maintenance task.

Poka Yoke at SCA
Poka Yoke at SCA, a producer of incontinence materials. Here, a red sign prevents a roll from being placed the wrong way. The output of paper should not touch the sign.

Improvement boards
In Lean companies you see lots of improvement boards. These are for example used during daily startup meetings. Production teams then discuss briefly what is going well and what is not, and which improvement actions are possible. Symbols are frequentky used on the boards. E.g. smileys, which reflect the mood on the shop floor. If the mood is bad, this is a strong visual signal.

Kaizens, improvement activities by individuals or by (multidisciplinary) teams, are also often shown on boards. Usually in the form of some template or step-by-step plan. This way, managers can see the progress and give feedback. After completion of an improvement activity the board remains useful, e.g. to share a success with others.

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X-matrices and Oobeya’s
To align improvement activities with each other and with the corporate mission, 'over-arching' improvement boards are used.

The highest level is the company mission, with an associated vision for the next five to ten years. This vision has a number of performance indicators, which can then be 'cascaded' to sub-goals for departments.

So-called "X-matrices" show these local improvement targets, and how these link to higher targets. X-matrices also display the current improvement actions.

X-matrices sometimes hang in a so-called Oobeya, Japanese for 'war room' or 'large space' . In this room you usullly see a number of related improvement boards.

Oobeyas are also used for project management, for example during the development of a new product. In that case, the boards show whether all subtasks are on schedule.

The structure of an X-matrix The structure of an X-matrix. It shows the connection between long and short term goals (source: Miriam van Hattum)

A relatively new visualisation option is video. After a few instructions, anyone with a smartphone can make pretty good videos showing the situation before and after an improvement. These videos can be shared internally, but sometimes also externally, for example via YouTube. Positive reactions make people pride, which generates energy for more improvements. The 2 second Lean movement is based on this principle.

Video is also used to show what happens when a machine is adjusted during a product change-over. The idea is to find out which activities are necessary and which are not. This way, the change-over time can be reduced. An example of a very efficient changeover process is changing the tires of a car during a Formula 1 race.

Value Stream Mapping
It is common within Lean to make a value stream map (VSM) for each product/market combination. It shows you which steps are needed to make the product group in question, and it identifies value-adding and non-value-adding activities. Everyone can easily understand such a value stream map, and thus contribute to improvements. This also increases the engagement.

The goal is a value stream as big as possible. Thereto, a future value stream map is made with as little wasteful moments as possible, such as waiting and transport. It shows the situation you would like to see. This way, the future production flow is made visible.

Value Stream Mapping within a hospital
Value Stream Mapping within a hospital

Go to Gemba
Gemba is Japanese for 'place where it happens'. This usually is the shop floor, the place where value is added to products. Managers should not try to solve problems behind their desks. Going to the Gemba is the only way to get a good picture of what is really going on. The shop floor then speaks to you, as it were! Moreover, you can ask people that are directly involved what their personal opinion is.

The Gemba, where a problem arises. can also be located at a supplier or at a customer.

In addition, go to Gemba helps if there are possible conflicts between people. Then too, you visit those people to find out what is going on. Job Relations from Training within Industry is a Lean method which helps you to evaluate such a situation in a structured way.

The term moonshining was coined by Chihiro Nakao. This Japanese engineer worked at Toyota for 25 years. One saying that is contributed to him: 'If you don't try something, no knowledge will visit you !'.

During moonshining, ideas are tried out - provided it is safe to do so - in a small-scale manner and with simple materials. Think of cardboard, Lego-like constructions, or even tape.

An example is the cardboard hospital layout that the Zaans Medical Centre in The Netherlands made, before they started to build their new hospital.

Moonshining means trial and error with low investments: build and test prototypes quickly, by making do-it-yourself dummy's. It can also mean: try before you buy.

Moonshining is also a very fast way to test a (re)new(ed) process. Then, you make the new situation visible! Reality often turns out to be different from what was thought. Moreover, everyone can see the intention, and is then able to contribute with their own ideas.

Moonshining: cardboard was used to see if the intended hospital layout would work in the new Zaans Medical Centre
Moonshining: cardboard was used to see if the intended hospital layout would work in the new Zaans Medical Centre

Think along
Problem-solving methods also rely heavily on visualisation. A fishbone diagram or process diagram, for example, shows routes from possible causes to a problem. Such diagrams help you reason in a structured way. They make it also much easier for others to think along!

In addition, a more experienced problem solver might give you tips, for example by saying which important steps you have skipped. In that case you are like an inexperienced detective, coached by an experienced one.

Visualisation of problem solving at NXPVisualisation of problem solving at NXP, based on a method of Kepner-Tregoe. 
Chains of events, from possible root causes to a problem, are examined here

Toyota managers are often challenged, in the role of student (deshi), by an experienced coach (sensei) to solve a problem. During this process, the shop floor (Gemba) serves as the objective source of information.

The analysis of the deshi is visualised in an A3 report, which has the size of an A3-paper. An A3 report is often repeatedly rewritten. Gradually, a travel description is created this way, from the problem to the proposed 'countermeasures'.

The advantage of this visualisation is, that the sensei can check if the student is applying the right way of thinking. At the end of the journey, the problem is not only solved, but the manager concerned has also become a better problem solver!

A similar interaction between a problem solver and a coach is seen in the application of Kata, Japanese for routine actions. In this case this refers to structured ways of problem solving.

The visualisation of thought processes, often with templates to be filled in, does not serve to make it possible for the sensei to provide solutions. In that case, only the problem is solved, but the problem solver has learned nothing. A good sensei only guides a student, for example with hints to gather more information on the shop floor, or to think out-of-the-box. People often have the tendency to look for solutions within their own field of expertise. This is comparable to only searching for a lost object in places where light shines!

In addition to problem solving, many other thinking processes can be visualised. This is particularly useful when multidisciplinary teams work together on one creative project. Such a project might be the development of a new business model. A book like Business Model Generation zooms in on this subject.

It is also possible to visualise the functioning of a team itself. Just like the steps in a Lean production line, tasks in a team must be divided and coordinated in order to create flow. A book like High-Impact Tools for Teams uses visual aids to make the common ground clear, that is: the shared agreements and knowledge.

Digital processes and the supply chain
When you make tangible products, the flow of the production process can be made visible rather easy. Sometimes, however, the products and semi-finished products are digital. This is for example the case within a software company, in an R&D department, and in an office.

In those cases, the flow of production can be displayed virtually on computer screens. That way, just as with the aforementioned thought processes, something is made visible that was hidden!

Making a value stream map (VSM) is also possible if you have a digital production process. The VSM is then called a makigami, Japanese for film script.

In addition, processes outside your field of vision can be made visual. Think, for example, of stock levels at your suppliers. Large companies such as Scania use logistics control towers to keep track of all material movements in their supply chain

A team of people representing partners in a supply chain, here improves processes supply chain-wide
A team of people representing partners in a supply chain, here improves processes using a Makigami board (photo Yusen)

Smart Industry
The rise of Smart Industry, also called Industry 4.0 and Internet-of-things, offers new opportunities to make invisible things visible. Event logs from an ERP system can for example be imported in process mining tools. This allows you to visualise the flow as it was on your shop floor. You can then check if a process behaves in the way it was developed.

Process mining can play processes that took place in the past, with orders moving along workstations like little balls. This way, everyone can immediately see what the bottlenecks were in a factory or in an office. You can also see where, for example, rework took place. After this, there is no more discussion about this, and everyone can start to think about solutions.

Process mining at Veco Precision shows the work flow from the past
Process mining at Veco Precision shows the work flow from the past

Smart Industry techniques such as artificial intelligence, big data, augmented reality and digital twins stretch the visualisation possibilities even further.

For example, sensors can visualise the current situation in a factory. The production planning can then take this into account.

With a digital twin, you have a digital copy of your production location. This copy makes it possible to test improvement actions. You only apply them in the real factory if they are successful. A modern form of moonshining!

Augmented reality, e.g. by using smart glasses, can for example show you how to assemble something. Someone else can also see what you see, and give instructions. This is useful, for example, to solve machine malfunctions. Finally, thanks to smart industry, a factory can also make things visual by itself. For example, the factory can indicate when maintenance is required, or stop production in the event of deviations, in accordance with the Jidoka principle.

So there are plenty of opportunities to let your shop floor 'speak' to you, as inspiration for continuous improvement! 

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Arnout Orelio