It’s no secret. Workplace information can change quickly and often—production schedules, customer requirements, engineering specifications, operational methods, tooling and fixtures, material procurement, work-in-process, and the thousand other details on which the daily life of the enterprise depends. In any single day, literally thousands of informational transactions are required to keep work current, accurate, and timely.
But what happens when that vital information is hard to access, incomplete, inaccurate, late—or simply not there? What happens is this: People ask lots of questions and lots of the same questions, repeatedly. An information-scarce workplace is the opposite of a visual workplace. When key information is not instantly available, the company pays for that in long lead times, late deliveries, poor quality, mistakes, accidents, low operator and managerial morale, and runaway costs.
When workplace visuality is not firmly in place, these unhappy occurrences are chronic and unrelieved. They happen “all the time”—day in/day out, week in/week out, year in/year out. Struggle becomes a way of life.
In the pre-visual workplace, everything and everyone is forced to exist within a narrow definition of their capability. The physical work environment is devoid of definition or conveyed context. There is no common purpose. It is devoid of meaning. Attempts to improve the process of work invariably fail because even the smallest gains disappear overnight. A pre-visual workplace has no means to sustain them, however hard-won.
This is the unhappy state of affairs that results from chronic deficits of information—unanswered questions.
Far too many offices and production floors are flooded with questions that are asked—but many more experience a worse condition: questions that are unasked. We say “worse” because all too often when a question does not get asked, people make stuff up. They simply make up an answer. Sometimes that works to the benefit of the company, but all too frequently it works against it. People make stuff up and accidents happen, material is lost, defects are produced, delivery times are missed, and customers flee.
Visual information sharing at this gate area ensures that different planes can connect with the jet way precisely and weary travelers can de-plane quickly and safely.
Working in an environment without visual information sharing is like trying to reach a new destination by driving a hundred miles when there is no map and no one to answers your questions—on a road with no road signs, no traffic signals, and no markings down the center of the road. You can probably make it but you are likely to pay a terrible price.
Verbal answers are an imperfect solution. Yet they are so commonplace in many companies that some people (especially managers and supervisors) can come to think that their main job is to provide verbal answers—day in and day out, all the time.
Counting the level of information deficits (missing answers) in your company is the quickest way for you to calculate and diagnose the extent to which a visual work environment is both absent and needed. You can do this by keeping track of the questions that you are asked in a memo pad—as well as noting, separately, the questions that you ask.
What level of performance is available at the same gate with all the visual devices removed? Can you hear the many questions this lack of visuality triggers? Can you sense the danger? The unhappy customers? Which gate looks more like your company? What is the impact of that?
That’s a first step. Then create visual devices that imbed the missing answers into the landscape of work. Start taking these concrete steps to turn your work area—and your company—into self-explaining, self-regulating work environment. Notice the information deficits around you; notice the many unanswered questions. Chronic information deficits! And start answering them through visual devices. Create a workplace that speaks.