Posted by Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth   |  

In the last few issues of The Visual Thinker, we put the foundation in place for our continuing discussion about standards and standardization. Now let’s take on THE trap: all too easily as we implement a visual workplace, we standardize visual devices too soon—instead of cultivating visual inventiveness.

Many people rightly link standardization with the journey to excellence. But far too many equate this to making everything the same, uniform, unvarying—even identical. This is a mistake I call cookiecutter-itis, and it is particularly dangerous in reference to a visual workplace. Addresses, for example, are an indispensable part of every visual landscape. But if we settle for addresses that follow the formula of “same/uniform/unvarying”, then we miss creating a robust language of visual performance, made up of rich and variant visual devices. The result is an array of cookie cutter addresses—black letters and numbers on a white background. No array at ano-cookie-cuttersll.


Cookie-cutter standardization is death by sameness. This robs the enterprise of the possibility of high-performance excellence, and its employees of the satisfaction that comes from genuine inventive engagement—aka, thinking—and the robust, creative solutions that derive from that. For me, one of the hallmarks of a spirited and engaged workforce and a genuinely effective visual conversion is what I call the “weird” factor—or, in polite company, the “local” factor. “Weird” is good when it comes from an effort to create more functionality out of the ordinary.


If a company’s array of visual devices looks suspiciously similar and occurs on the same level of mind, something’s not right with the rollout. Usually that means two things. First, the “good enough” bar is set too low; as a result, the company standardizes on visual improvements too quickly. Second, no time (or not enough time) is set aside for improvement activity; as a result, people simply do not have the time or the quiet to think and do—to test their own ideas and experiment. In either case, the visual improvement process is short-circuited—and, with it, performance.

Figure A/Cookie-Cutter Hanging Addresses

Figure A/Cookie-Cutter Hanging Addresses

Many companies casually approach the mighty opportunity that cultivating a well-developed, locally-grown language of visual devices offers. This is usually because they do not yet realize how powerfully those “weird” visual devices can contribute to the bottom line. In many such facilities, white addresses with black letters or numbers are plastered on everything, cookie-cutter fashion—usually under a 5S umbrella—in the mistaken belief that this fulfils the requirement.

It does not. Small wonder that the very people asked to put such dull addresses in place lose the will to maintain them or the heart to spread them. The standard is already set. It’s called “good enough,” a sworn enemy of excellence.

Did you know that there are over 15 different types of addresses? Yep. Look at the hanging address in Figure A. Seen it before?  Of course you have. By contrast, look at Figure B. I rest my case.


Figure B/Highly-Inventive Hanging Address
This visual device shares the area name, points to the Cafeteria, Restrooms, and Training Room—and is bold and beautiful. Thanks go to Sam Wagner (Ops Director at Wasp) and his team of Visual Thinkers, all of whom read my Work That Makes Sense book, took on the challenge on page 163—and won!



Let’s move away from cookie-cutter standardization and take up the challenge of making our visual devices weird, unexpected, and thrilling—as if we were the customer of these devices and our job was to delight ourselves with them.

When we implement visuality effectively, we make a point of not standardizing devices too soon—but focus instead on cultivating visual inventiveness. Excellence is never achieved by neutralizing differences and homogenizing people’s ideas. Excellence has heft and strength and adventure to it. Who wants plain vanilla when we can have Cherry Garcia?