from our weekly newsletter, The Visual Thinker

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Many companies attempt to convert from traditional to the new manufacturing by relying exclusively on lean tools. In keeping with core lean principles, they focus on reducing the time component of a process–attacking time as a cost factor in order to increase profit margin. That means reducing cycle time as well.

Make no bones about it: Time-based improvement is a critical step in transforming your enterprise and increasing your profit margins. The lean strategy and its complement of lean tools—cellular design, takt time, standard work, pull systems, line leveling, load balancing—is crucial to both these outcomes. Cellular design, for example, creates discrete fields of production that are defined by the value that gets added there. Material, people, and information follow a path through the physical environment that, improvement cycle after improvement cycle, begins to describe the least-cost flow. I call this flow line: the product’s critical path.

While rapid improvement of a product’s critical path will generate impressive and immediate gains, these improvements erode. If you do not know this when you launch lean and do not prepare for the erosion of lean early on, lean can become unsustainable.

How do you sustain the hard won gains of lean? How do you ensure that the principles of lean become a way of life in the enterprise? What will you do when your event-based improvements (Kaizen Blitzes) have run their course? And what do you do when sustainment steps cannot even be considered because there are so many deep-seated barriers in the work culture that lean as an outcome is out of reach. These are crucial, real-world questions that workplace visuality can resolve. Indeed, they are why workplace visuality exists.

Rolls-Royce Aerospace in the UK realized this late in the game when, after nearly a decade of pouring resources into its lean conversions, it saw those gains erode. That’s when we met.

Start with the Visual Where


When Jim Womack and Dan Jones published their Lean Thinking book in 1997, I was overjoyed because the two authors declare—right there in print—5S as the crucial first step in the journey to lean. At last, said I, the heavyweights are endorsing what I had maintained for nearly two decades: visuality was indispensable to operational excellence. In the years that followed, however, I realized that I had mis-read what Womack and Jones had written. They were not advocating for a visual workplace. Instead, they were urging us to achieve a certain measure of cleanliness and order—and to install some lines and labels—in order that the production floor would be better able to successfully implement lean.

The contribution of Womack and Jones to local and global economies has been enormous—and we are grateful. But instead of advancing the understanding of visuality, they inadvertently demoted its importance. They did so innocently. In the best sense of the Greek word ignosis, they simply did not know. The field of visuality had not yet been sufficiently codified.

Well, here comes what we discovered since then. A visual workplace is needed because people have too many questions—whether they work at a company that is lean or not yet lean. And most of these questions are either never answered—or are answered incompletely, inaccurately, or not fast enough. And when we consider the full load of questions that are asked over the course of, say, a single year in any pre-visual company, we quickly discover that the most frequently asked question is: where? Where are my tools? Where is the material? Where are the dies? Where is the report? Where is the work order? Where are the parts? Where is my supervisor? And on and on. You’ll remember, I am sure, that The Visual Thinker carried two separate articles in the month of May on the Six Core Questions. And the very first of these six questions that need to be visually answered is where.

The journey to lean begins with installing the visual answer to the where question into the physical landscape of work. And if you think, as Jim and Dan do, that the “visual where” is merely another word for 5S, then make sure to read the next few issues of The Visual Thinker when I continue the discussion and un-nest the answer. Find out if you are right!