You’re not lean until you’re visual
November 10, 2021 | 9:48 am CST
Lean labeling

Labels are the first thing to make your lean effort visual.

You’ll likely hear all kinds of terms that generally mean the same thing. Visual control, visual management, make it visual, etc. And like so many principles that we learn from the Japanese manufacturing sector, there tends to be a surface meaning, then a much broader and more powerful underlying principle. 

On the surface, when we think of making things visual, the first thing that pops to mind is labels. Typically, as we begin our lean journeys we get everything organized and labeled. Whether it’s office supplies, shop supplies or the critical-to-operations bathroom supplies. And, wow, it sure feels good to see where things are supposed to go and more importantly where you can find them again, eliminating wasteful searching.

Now that everything is labeled, does that mean we have a visual factory? Unfortunately, no, not by a long shot. Let’s continue to peel the onion.

Kaizen foam for organizing tools
Kaizen foam uses cutouts to identify where tools belong in a visual and physical way.


Next, we’re probably going to want to look at all our tools. Now this could be pens, highlighters, staplers, keyboards, etc., in the office environment, or it could be an assortment of hand tools on the shop floor or tools required to adjust machinery if you’re a machine operator. This is where we put to use exciting visual controls such as shadow boards and Kaizen foam. Getting your critical tools at the point of use is so important. A personal favorite of mine is magnets sticking tools right where they need to be!

If you had to apply one overarching rule to organizing tools in your workstation my personal favorite is I want to know if I have all the tools I need from 10 feet away. There’s nothing worse than being midway through a job and having to stop to look for tools. 

So fast forward a couple of months, and all your shelves and supplies are labeled, all of your tools are displayed neatly on shadow boards or in Kaizen foam, largely eliminating the searching for what you need when you need it. You might think at this point, “I have a visual factory.” More accurately, I would say, “You’re on your way to a visual factory, but you’re not there yet.”

Lean visual controls
Establish visual controls in your shop so managers (and everyone else) know how work is flowing.


What about your team? What visual controls do you have in place to let them know whether they’re on track or need help? If you can visually answer the question, “Am I doing a good job today?” in real time, this is very powerful in motivating the shop floor and allowing your team leads to know where to help and when.

Most of us have a team leader or plant manager, typically a smart guy or gal. And they’re usually the ones running around the plant with their hair on fire trying to keep everybody busy, get answers for customers. They’re looking for and maintaining the workflow in the shop. Not to mention training people, setting up machines and making process improvements. Needless to say, I think we can all agree that person is usually very busy. Here’s where making the factory visual really kicks into high gear. 

Traffic light
A traffic light is the ultimate visual cue. No driver needs to analyze it to know what to do.


You can start helping the decision-making process with visual aids that immediately transfer the right information with no thinking required. In its simplest form, think of a traffic light. Nobody has to think about what to do at a traffic light. It’s not up to the driver to assess the traffic around them and make a judgment call. It’s clear, concise, and simple. 

So, let’s get back to that plant manager. They are responsible for making decisions all day long. What visual controls can we put in place that would allow them to make the right decision at the right time with little or no analysis? Hey, don’t roll your eyes. I didn’t say it was going to be easy! And everybody’s situation is unique, so it’s hard to make a suggestion as to what to do. But some amazing places to start would be to help them stay a few hours ahead of the factory. So, a visual control on a work cell or department’s workload would really help them see if someone is about to run out of work before they run out of work and come asking. 

See the video link below this article for one of the simple but effective visual controls we put in place at Best Damn Doors for our engineers and team leads to balance work orders between four CNCs. It was simple, cheap, and extremely visual.

CNC visual batting order
This is the visual cue set up at Best Damn Doors to manage four CNC machines. 


All too often we’re so worried about keeping people working that we forget it’s just as critical that they know when to stop working. We want to avoid over production not just on the shop floor, but in the office as well. This is a wonderful visual control for your management team to work toward putting in place. A great assignment for your whole factory is put the shop floor staff in charge of the Kanbans (reordering reminders) and lean labels, have the team leads establish production expectations and get the timers set up. Then have the management team establish decision making visual controls. And if you don’t have all those levels of management to help, I guess you’re going to be busy this Saturday! 

If you need any help with setting this stuff up or perhaps ideas or just want to brainstorm, we’re only a phone call away and love meeting fellow lean maniacs.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning/ Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or brad@quantumlean.ca.