“Whenever there is a product for a customer, there is a value stream. The challenge lies in seeing it,” write Rother and Shook. They argue that the real intent of the workbook is to enable managers to create flow — the seamless current of products through the organization to the customer (which was, incidentally, the ideal of the early Ford production system). Visual maps of a production system provide a way of realizing this state, helping people identify where — and then why — work is being delayed, inventory is backing up, and errors are being created. Asking people to participate in creating these maps pushes them to assess where, and how, they participate in a sequence of events that results in a product valued by a customer.
Managers have responded to this simple idea. This workbook has sold more than 250,000 copies and been translated into 11 languages. It provides clear, powerful, and simple ways for managers to use this technique to see sources of waste, and to improve the process of production for the customer.
Yet there is a bigger opportunity: learning to see in the workplace is a form of fostering shared meaning. This message comes through in the recent book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, in which author Matthew E. May identifies powerful ways that managers benefit by learning to see. First, he shares a basic principle of the Toyota system, which is to begin all problem solving by intensely observing the work itself. Going to the workplace and doing nothing but observing, carefully and patiently, reveals facts to the manager, who can then address the scientific reality of work without being affected by politics or altered by agendas. Learning to go and see the work itself (regardless of the setting) enables individuals to propose actions that directly address the problems that are revealed. On a deeper level, May shows how lean managers “think in pictures” by sharing their findings in a clean, visual, and commonly understood format that prompts everyone to understand and act on the problem together.
Interestingly, one of the best resources on visual management is possibly one of the least known. Gwendolyn D. Galsworth’s Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking: Creating Enterprise Excellence through the Technologies of the Visual Workplace is a self-published book whose success is built on a community of practitioners.
Galsworth’s guide shows how visual tools support a more powerful, effective, and aware workplace. All work can be broken down into the technical standards of what one works on and the procedural standards of how one integrates this work into a value stream, Galsworth explains. Employees can — and should — capture and communicate this second set of actions.
Her book succeeds by illustrating precisely what she means by “a visual workplace.” Through photos and case studies, Galsworth shares simple visual techniques, such as clearly labeling where parts go on a factory workstation, charting key group metrics on a visible board, or marking the best route for products or workflow through simple visible paths.
A visual workplace is distinguished by cues that indicate when materials are running low or by understandable categories for commonly used materials. It displays times for pickups and dropoffs, boards with critical metrics for project success. These devices guide work and transform culture by uncovering and sharing critical information that would otherwise be hoarded by managers, protected by workers, and simply lost in the grind of getting the next project out the door. As individuals find visual ways to share their standards of getting things done, “the workplace speaks, able at last to tell us where things are, what needs to be done, by when (or for how long), by whom (or by which machine or tool), in what quantity, and how,” she writes. And this principle applies as much to white-collar office work as it does to manufacturing.