How visual tools and techniques help managers lead with the whole brain—
By Tom Ehrenfeld
Visual management has become an essential discipline for managers today. The practice involves communicating with images, organizing and directing work through visual solutions, and creating clear graphic depictions of complex ideas—for example, to enable workers to see how their work fits into a value stream flowing directly to customers.Never have such skills been more important. Our global economy values images as the new lingua franca. Workers raised on the Internet have attention spans that require more evocative yet pithier messages that blend images with text. And on a practical level, the adoption of PowerPoint as the common platform of a world dominated by slides and decks requires managers to understand what makes a good visual presentation good.
Several recent books add new ideas to the existing literature about visual management as both a tool and a broader form of managerial thought. These books and other resources demonstrate that visual skills and awareness are ultimately valuable for honing the mind’s eye of the manager, including distilling key ideas into the most meaningful images, charts, graphs, or maps; selling projects and proposals with effective images; and “mapping” business activities in order to see waste and thus turn motion into value-adding action….
Interestingly, one of the best resources on visual management is possibly one of the least known. Gwendolyn Galsworth’s Visual Workplace VisualThinking: Creating Enterprise Excellence through the Technologies of the Visual Workplace [published by Visual-Lean® Enterprise Press] … shows how [visual thinking and the visual solutions that result] support a more powerful, effective, and aware workplace. All work can be broken down into the technical standards of what one works on and the procedural standards of how one integrates this work into a value stream, Galsworth explains. Employees can — and should — capture and communicate this second set of actions. Her book succeeds by illustrating precisely what she means by “a visual workplace.” Through photos and case studies, Galsworth shares simple visual solutions, such as clearly addressing where parts go on a factory workstation, charting key group metrics on a visible board, or marking the best route for products or workflow through simple visible paths.
A visual workplace is distinguished by visual devices that indicate when materials are running low—or by understandable categories for commonly used materials. It displays times for pickups and dropoffs, boards with critical metrics for project success. These devices guide work and transform culture by uncovering and sharing critical information that would otherwise be hoarded by managers, protected by workers, and simply lost in the grind of getting the next project out the door.
As individuals find visual ways to share their standards of getting things done, “the workplace speaks, able at last to tell us where things are, what needs to be done, by when (or for how long), by whom (or by which machine or tool), in what quantity, and how,” she writes. And this principle applies as much to white-collar office work as it does to manufacturing. Regardless of the setting, says Galsworth, visuality becomes the shared language of work. “The visual workplace is about making the truth hold still long enough for us to see it, assess it, make a sound decision, and then take timely action,” she argues. Again, these are not abstract ideals, but operational practices; she speaks of specific devices [categories of visual function] such as visual displays, production control boards, and other commonly understood solutions for shared action.
Although Galsworth’s aspirations for the visual workplace may be lofty, they can ultimately apply to… any field:
In its fullness, an implementation of the visual workplace will change everything. Everything. In its fullness, it represents the creation of an entirely new set of competencies for people, process, and leadership. To
tell by looking. To tell everything by looking. To put an end to motion by liberating information that has long been imprisoned in the binders, reports, books, computer files, and data systems of the company—and in the hearts and minds of the workforce —and in the process to liberate the human will.
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