Last month's article introduced the concept of visualization and explored how it can be an effective tool to monitor processes, identify anomalies and keep track of "how we are doing." This month will focus on another equally powerful aspect: visualization as a means of communication. As mentioned previously, the core principle of Kaizen is "Make the Rule, Follow the Rule, Improve the Rule." Visual methods are the simplest yet most effective way to convey said rules and ensure all who enter the gemba are on the same proverbial page. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an arrow is worth a million "Hey you're going the wrong ways."
There's a great moment in the 1984 movie Starman in which Jeff Bridges' character, an alien, drives Karen Allen's car through the red light at an intersection and nearly gets them into an accident. As Karen Allen yells at him for not obeying the traffic lights, Jeff Bridges replies "I watched you very carefully. Red light stop, green light go, yellow light go very fast." The moment works on many levels, mostly because it illustrates an unwritten rule that most drivers follow with regard to traffic lights. However, from a Kaizen quality perspective, it also demonstrates the power of a visual rule. How a stranger to our planet could discern the rules of traffic flow without speaking the language, knowing the customs, or being trained in advance is a testament to the effectiveness of using visualization to communicate. Admittedly, yes, the Starman got the rule about yellow lights wrong, but that misunderstanding led to an anomaly, which was quickly noticed and addressed by Karen Allen's character, proving, once again, that visualization is also a great way to monitor a process. He was correct about red and green without being told and, as Meatloaf might say, "two out of three ain't bad."
Obscure 80's sci-fi aside, visual rules make up a huge part of daily life. Besides the obvious traffic examples (traffic lights, speed limits, merging lanes, deer crossings), visualization as means of communication is prevalent – how else would society know not to drop a hair dryer in the bathtub without a keen visual rule on the label? How else would someone who's just lost a dollar in the candy machine be aware of the dangers of rocking it to get that stuck bag of peanuts? Visual rules rule.
Moving into the gemba, visualization can be used easily and effectively. Thinking of a warehouse floor, a simple (not necessarily quick, but simple nonetheless) application is to create traffic patterns for powered industrial vehicles (lifts, pickers, golf carts) and pedestrian walkways for employees and visitors on foot. This will not only affect efficiency as traffic will flow more easily, but it will also greatly improve safety awareness. Forklifts and pedestrians seldom combine well and having a designated path (maybe with a few sporadically placed footprints and a big red forklift in a circle with a line through it) is a great way to ensure safe passage.
Another great warehouse/factory practice is to have a set of color-coded cones used to delineate the status of a product. The stack with the green cone is complete and ready to load. The stack with the purple cone is staged but needs to be verified. The stack with the red cone is segregated due to OS&D. A quick poster with the color code clearly defined and an even quicker training session later, everyone knows the status of each stack.
There are a multitude of opportunities for visual rules; any process done daily and repeatedly by many can have some aspect communicated visually. The sky and the imagination of the manager is the only limit.
On a side note, even though the opportunities are more obvious, do not think visualization only works on a floor where a physical process is performed. Office environments can also implement visual rules. Whether color-coding (smaller cones) various stages of paperwork, identifying inbound/outbound work, or even creating an efficient work area by labeling the direction of the workflow (new stuff, what you're working on now, what your finished with), the opportunities are there.
We live in a wondrous, global society and the reality of that is we often find people of many different backgrounds working in a gemba. Sometimes there are language barriers to contend with when the aspect of communication is present. Using a visual rule transcends any vernacular obstacle. After all, an arrow is an arrow in English, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Farsi, or any other language. A red hand or a green footprint means "don't walk" or "walk," respectively, regardless of your personal country of origin.
Next month we will conclude this journey of visualization at its logical destination: the Five S's. Until then, remember…even the Wizard of Oz had a visual rule in place. How would Dorothy have ever reached the Emerald City without first following the yellow brick road?
Kirk White has worked in every division of Yusen Logistics. After a brief stint in Transportation, he transferred to Corporate, where he coordinated Yusen's Employee Empowered Kaizen system and served as a Specialist for the Business Process Re-engineering group, after which he moved to the Warehouse division to serve as the East Coast Quality Manger before ultimately joining the International division, where he hopes to use his Quality knowledge base to prove an asset to OCM.
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