Best Practices -- More Than Meets The Eye

Dec. 21, 2004
The visual workplace's unheralded benefits include an empowered workforce and sustained manufacturing improvement.

The visual workplace, says Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, is "like this voluptuous woman draped in veils, and every time you take another veil off" it reveals new facets.

Galsworth, author of "Visual Systems: Harnessing the Power of a Visual Workplace" (1997, AMACOM) has been engrossed in the field of visual thinking for 22 years and says it still is "continually coughing up new surprises and wonderful new benefits."

For those unfamiliar with the field, Galsworth defines a visual workplace as "a work environment that is self-explaining, self-ordering, self-regulating and self-improving -- where what is supposed to happen does happen on time, every time, day or night because of visual devices."

Those visual devices can include colored labels on shelves, lines on the floor and perhaps hundreds of other mechanisms that direct or influence people's behavior without a word being spoken. They help bring order to the work environment and information to the point of use, thus enhancing efficiency and reducing wasted effort.

However, says Galsworth, president of Beaverton, Ore.-based Quality Methods International Inc., few manufacturing firms reap the full benefits of a visual workplace. "Because 'visuality' is a physical change in the actual work environment that is . . . very effective, companies sometimes mistake the merest beginning of the journey for its completion," she says.

Companies see some of the immediate benefits -- cleanliness, reduced accidents, reduced need for micromanaging -- but fail to see visuality's wider purpose, which is "to remedy chronic information deficits at work and to align the workforce with the corporate will," Galsworth says.

In short, companies may be too quickly satisfied with the results of their visual efforts. The visual systems expert says a comprehensive effort to ingrain visuality throughout the workplace reveals its additional benefits: a workforce of visual thinkers. That is, an inventive workforce that does not simply respond to visual signals, but which takes on the task of developing better ways of visually developing their workspaces.

Without this, "thousands of ideas may be missed," Galsworth says.

Rolls-Royce PLC sees other benefits. The London-based manufacturer of engines and power generation systems faces a dilemma to which every manufacturer can relate: It initiates improvement efforts that yield positive results, yet maintaining those manufacturing gains proves daunting. "We have done umpteen improvements since the early '80s, and we have struggled to sustain them," explains Rolls-Royce business analyst Stephen Pollard.

Now the company believes it has found a solution. Rather than using visual practices as simply intervention tools for use in certain areas, Rolls-Royce has developed a comprehensive visual methodology it has begun deploying throughout the company. The model delivers total visual control over every aspect of manufacturing, from the process itself all the way through the cell, says Pollard.

"I think the manufacturing community overall does not see the true value of visual -- and what I mean by visual is [the] power levels visuality gives you both from a communication point of view, from an instruction point of view, from a control point of view," Pollard surmises. "Visuality . . . is the only mechanism -- the only one -- that sustains critical path value. We can spend many years trying to get the best value out of our processes by changing or reorganizing our machines, and instructing our people, and that is a pure value. But to sustain that value and to build upon it, you need visual power levels that are constantly instructing, guiding, telling the entire process and people."

What the company strives for, says Peter Dobbs, Rolls-Royce director of operational transformation, is to create a plant that anyone can walk through and know immediately -- at each machine -- whether it's on or off schedule, what the problems and issues are, what tools go with which job and so on. "It's more self-explanatory. It's a huge step from the traditional visuality as a control board," he says.

When you take visual control to that level, notes Dobbs, it creates empowerment "almost across the board. People naturally start to improve that place which you've corrected. They come up with things you've never dreamed of."

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