Organizations pursuing lean often rush to deploy visual management boards. They fill the walls with metrics and charts, performance data and improvement project plans.

Sadly, as often as not, these visual boards turn into unattractive wallpaper, unused, unloved, and out of date. The reason that they fail to fulfill expectations is that the necessary groundwork hasn’t yet been laid.

I see organizations make three common mistakes:

1. They haven’t established the right mindset/culture to support the boards.

In most companies, problems are a cause for embarrassment, and often something to be hidden. But that’s the wrong attitude -- companies serious about improvement must love their problems. They must view a problem not as someone’s fault, but rather as an opportunity to fix the system. Until that mindset is established and widespread, people will be anxious and afraid to have publicly visual indicators of their performance. At best, they’ll feel that they’re being micromanaged. At worst, they’ll be afraid that they’re under constant suspicion. They won’t see a visual board for what it is: an easy way to indicate that they need help.

2. They don’t have standards for people’s work.

It’s pointless to post visual indicators of performance until you know what the standard for the job is in relation to customer needs and organizational goals. For example, what’s the correct number of widgets Sara should make per shift? What’s the target number of boxes that Roger should be packing per hour? How many sales calls per day should Tom be making? Once you establish standards, you can make the visual controls that the workers—and managers—can use to spot problems. 

3. They haven’t yet decided what processes and improvements they want to measure.

Visual controls enable you to see -- in real time -- how a process is performing, and if necessary, to solve problems as they occur. The key question, then, is what do you want to know about the process? What are the critical metrics that reflect your ability to deliver the products and services that your customers desire? Quality, safety and delivery metrics are fundamental, of course, but there are other valuable process-oriented metrics. What’s the turnover time for an operating room? At what step in the order entry process do pricing errors occur, and how often?  Once you identify the specific improvement you want to make, you can then measure your progress. 

How can you avoid these errors and increase the likelihood that your visual management boards become a powerful tool for improvement?

1. Start your lean journey with a simple improvement idea board. Have people put up ideas to make their own work easier or faster. While these ideas won’t necessarily “move the needle” on business results, it’s a critical step to getting people comfortable with the idea of making their issues visible to both their peers and to leadership.

2. Establish performance standards for each job and each process. These standards are often quantitative, but they could also be qualitative—for example, is a workspace neat and well organized (5S compliant). As with standard work, these standards should be established in conjunction with workers rather than foisted upon them.

3. Determine the essential measurements. There are an infinite number of processes you can measure, and an infinite number of metrics you can generate. Measure too many things, and the signal-to-noise ratio gets so bad that you’ll lose focus on what’s really important. Identify the critical success factors that will help you reach your yearly goals, and then select the process measurements that will illuminate your progress toward those goals.

Rushing to create a visual management system will result in visual clutter that does nothing to help workers or managers improve the way work is done. If you take your time establishing the right foundation, you’ll be rewarded with visuals that help people do their jobs better.

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that helps organizations become faster, stronger and more agile through the application of lean principles to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. His new book “Building the Fit Organization,” just received the Shingo Research Award.