Think Visual

Implementing visual management on the factory floor can help pinpoint problems, communicate goals and a whole lot more.

The triangle of success in wood products manufacturing contains three elements, forming a strong structure (your plant). This illustration is an example of visual communication to you, the reader. When one element of the tringle of success is missing, your plant becomes weak and incomplete, as in this structure.

I have mentioned in previous columns that there are three critical elements necessary for a manufacturing company to be successful, and wood products producers are no exception. They are: Quality, On-Time Delivery and On-Cost Production.

Every continuous improvement effort should focus on achieving all three of these elements. To fully understand their importance, think of them as the three sides of a triangle. If one of the three elements is missing, such as Quality, the structure lacks integrity and so would your manufacturing strategy.

This month I focus on visual management as a tool to help your company meet the requirements of this triangle of success.

What Is Visual Management?

Visual Management (VM) entails placing physical displays throughout the plant detailing instructions, performance records and other information required to make sure everything possible is being done to achieve the triangle of success. VM capitalizes on the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. The two illustrations on this page of the triangle of success are perfect examples. I chose to visually show the three elements that drive a manufacturing company's success and the resulting fragile and weird-looking structure that results when Quality is missing.

Just as I used these pictures to communicate the importance of the triangle of success, you can do the same for your employees by using this lean tool of VM in your factory management. Visual communication has many applications in manufacturing management. A few of them are explained below to give you some practical illustrations of how they might relate to your factory or shop. As I have mentioned before, none of the ideas I present in this column is meant for large companies only. On the contrary, no shop is too small to utilize VM.

Organize the Workplace

If you are utilizing 5-S Workplace Management at your factory, you have a head start on VM. (See Management Matters in the June 2000 issue of Wood & Wood Products.) It does not take a lot of imagination to realize that visual displays of any sort are not going to be effective in a plant that is cluttered and in a state of disarray. Visuals do not stand out if they are part of a disorganized environment. Thus, 5-S is a prerequisite of an effective VM program.

One of the simplest ways to visually organize the workplace is to make sure the floor is marked for the location of aisles and storage areas. Aisles should be well planned and permanently marked with bold lines and preferably painted in between. Some factories do not even paint lines to outline aisles so they are constantly shifting and snaking their way through the factory. Once this happens, inefficiencies begin to mount due to delays caused by excessive materials handling or the time lost trying to locate a particular part or product in the production chain.

This manufacturer uses a basic visual management tool to communicate the need to produce quality products. The ideal VM complement would be a board showing how the department is measuring up to this goal.

Likewise, areas designated for storage of materials and work in process should be marked with lines or painted in a designated color depicting what types of materials are allowed in each area. If these areas are determined by calculating the actual space requirements, the amount of inventory build-up will be minimized because these floor markings become a visual control.

A simple but often neglected way to organize individual work stations is using visuals to arrange cutting tools and tools used for setting up machinery - CNC or not.

I visited a factory a couple of months ago and conducted a walk-through with the floor supervisor. I asked him what he considered to be his greatest challenge in changeovers. He instantly replied, "Setting up boring machines."

At my suggestion we walked to the area where most of the boring machines were located. When we arrived and I assessed the situation, I had to admit that they were older model machines that create set-up challenges.

As luck would have it, one of the operators had just completed a batch of parts and was beginning to change one of the machine setups. Knowing that his supervisor and a guest were observing him, he went about his job with extra quickness and agility. Then something strange happened. He walked about 30 feet to another machine that was not running at the time. He rummaged around for a bit before grabbing a wrench and returning to his machine. Believe it or not, he did this again a minute or so later, looking for another tool. As this was happening, I asked the supervisor what was going on, and with a red face, he confessed the obvious, that the operator did not have his own set of tools to changeover the machine.

I am sure you are ahead of me and probably know that I suggested tools be purchased for each machine and that a tool board be constructed and painted with a silhouette showing where each tool should be stored. This not only helps the operator keep track of his tools, but visually alerts his operator or his supervisor when a tool is missing.

This brand of VM is not rocket science and is probably something you have known about for years. The question, though, is do you use it or is your plant a maze of disorganization?

Make Problems Visible

One of the goals of visual management is to bring attention to problems as soon as they occur. Those of you who have a conveyor system, such as for a production finishing line, know how important it is to have a red flashing light come on whenever the line stops. Not only does that light flash, but another also flashes at the point at which the line was shut off. This gives immediate visual notification that there is a problem and identifies where it is located.

In a similar manner, key machinery and work cells should have the same type of visual alarm that will call attention to a problem in order to summon the necessary assistance to reinstate production flow as quickly as possible. It is a good idea to have a clock for measuring the duration of these production interruptions and maintaining a record of them.

For example, consider placing a green, amber, and red light (like a traffic light) at each key machine. A green light means the machine is in production, amber signifies a changeover and red signals that there is a malfunction. When all three traffic lights are off, and a blue light is on, the machine is not being used. By putting the lights in a widely visible area, a supervisor can quickly scan and locate problems throughout the shop.

Please note that I do not advocate this for every machine and process. The lights are effective for quickly communicating problems of operations that are prone to work stoppages, like finishing lines. As you eliminate one constraint and another one surfaces, tackle it using the same approach.

Another excellent visual management tool is the go/no-go gauge. It helps machine operators check the accuracy of their work and make problems immediately visible. These gauges should be milled from aluminum or other durable material that will not wear out; they should have a distinctive marking to make them readily visible. Again, there should be a control board with silhouettes or numbers that ensure these are stored in an orderly manner and are easily accessible to the operators.

Communicate Goals and Objectives

A shop supervisor's main responsibility is to improve productivity. One simple way to measure this productivity and to identify problems is to calculate the number of pieces produced per man-hour worked at a machine, within a cell, or in a department and measure it against requirements.

For example, suppose your factory makes cabinets and you assign a unit value for each cabinet based on its size and complexity. You can then measure productivity by taking the total number of people present that day and multiply it by the number of available work hours and divide that by the number of units produced. This will give you the man-hours per unit.

VM Applications

Some of the practical applications of Visual Management in a factory include:

  • Organizing the workplace;
  • Making problems visible;
  • Communicating goals and objectives; and
  • Publishing results of continuous improvement efforts

This number, or a similar measurement of productivity, can be visually displayed along with the goals the company has set. This display can be updated daily or more often. The idea is to communicate the goals and the performance to those goals to everyone employed in that area.

It is important that the visual is somewhat standardized and displayed in a place of prominence where there is no clutter. People want to make a difference and this VM technique will pay you tremendous dividends no matter what the size of your operation. In addition to posting such a display in each respective department, post the performance of plant-wide goals in one central location, such as the lunchroom, where everyone can see how the other departments are doing. This will create healthy competition.

Publish Results of Continuous Improvement Efforts

One of the greatest uses of visual management is to make employees aware of how they are progressing in continuous improvement programs in their area of responsibility. It may be the plant-wide goal of achieving the triangle of success by producing quality products, shipped on time and on cost (production level, yield or other measures). Posting the goals and the measurement of performance to these goals gives critical feedback to everyone as mentioned in the example above.

Whatever the goal, feedback is critical to recognize the progress that a team has made and to reinforce its continuing efforts. Thus, share accomplishments visually with charts and graphics that are simple and easy to interpret. Again, the lunch room or another gathering place is a good location for this visual feedback.

Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. Keep visuals simple, to the point and uncluttered.

Tom Dossenbach is managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or at

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