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Published: August 26, 2008


Managing to See

How visual tools and techniques help managers lead with the whole brain.

Illustration by Opto, image © Photodisc/Alamy

Visual management has be­come an essential discipline for managers today. The practice involves communicating with images, organizing and directing work through vi­sual controls, and creating clear graphic depictions of complex ideas — for example, to enable workers to see how their work fits into a value stream flowing directly to customers.

Never have such skills been more important. Our global econ­omy values images as the new lingua franca. Workers raised on the Internet have attention spans that require more evocative yet pithier messages that blend images with text. And on a practical level, the adoption of PowerPoint as the common platform of a world dominated by slides and decks requires managers to understand what makes a good vi­sual presentation good.

Several recent books add new ideas to the existing literature about visual management as both a tool and a broader form of managerial thought. These books and other resources demonstrate that visual skills and awareness are ultimately valuable for honing the mind’s eye of the manager, including distilling key ideas into the most meaningful images, charts, graphs, or maps; selling projects and proposals with effective images; and “mapping” business activities in order to see waste and thus turn motion into value-adding action.

Unfortunately, the definitive re­source on visual management has yet to be written. Many of the following guides explain one thing very well — be it a way to communicate with pictures, produce great slides for a talk, or teach workers a way of codifying their work with a visual language that can help everyone make improvements together. Yet no one book or resource teaches managers the value and use of visual tools in a manner that illustrates these principles visually, nor do any merge theory and practice seam­lessly. So the following resources are all recommended as useful and instructive, and with luck they have also laid the foundation for more comprehensive works to come.

A Question of Meaning
The subject of visual thinking has starkly different meanings depending on the expert. Take, for example, consultant Dan Roam’s recently published book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. It has more to do with generating insights, framing problems, and selling ideas than with visual thinking per se.

Roam says that executives should get over their fear of sketching out ideas, since developing vi­sual acuity has little to do with one’s artistic chops: Managers must learn visual communication to improve how they lead and get things done.

“One of the reasons that pictures are such a great way to solve problems is that many problems are hard to see clearly, and a picture can help us see aspects of the problem that might otherwise be invisible,” Roam writes. “Visual thinking helps by giving us a way to see problems not as an endless variety of things that go wrong, but as a small set of interconnected visual challenges, each one of which can be pictured more clearly on its own.”

Roam approaches complex challenges with a systematic set of questions that are loosely structured around forms of visual thinking. His book breaks down these questions into six categories, each of which correlates with a way of seeing, or understanding, a problem: understanding the who/what, the how many, the where, the when, and then the how of a situation (the first five), which leads the manager to a deeper understanding of the why. Each section has specific strategies and tools for representing this mental approach on paper.

Here is where Roam’s book falls short, however. To help readers un­derstand and apply these principles, Roam has produced a Visual Thinking Codex that lists the visual senses and shows how they fit with each of the associated thinking frameworks. Roam’s claim that this codex is “simple” reveals a flaw in this otherwise appealing book: There is a dis­connect between what the author knows theoretically and the design of his material on the page.

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Visual Management Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking: Creating Enterprise Excellence through the Technologies of the Visual Workplace (Visual-Lean Enterprise Press, 2005), 244 pages
  2. Jessica Hagy, Indexed (Viking Studio, 2008), 96 pages
  3. Matthew E. May, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, 2007), 256 pages
  4. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (HarperPerennial, 1994), 216 pages
  5. Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2006), 276 pages; The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need (Riverhead Books, 2008), 160 pages
  6. Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures (Portfolio, 2008), 288 pages
  7. Mike Rother and John Shook, Learning to See: Value-Stream Mapping to Create Value and Eliminate Muda, Version 1.3 (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2003), 112 pages
  8. Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. (Graphics Press, 2001), 200 pages; Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990), 128 pages; The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (Graphics Press, 2006), 32 pages