Category Archives: Visual Management

Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.



Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.

Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

“Seeing” Red

In 2009, Charles Jacobs published a book entitled Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.  In it, he discusses the power of mental paradigms and what leaders must do to change behavior.  According to Jacobs research, we interpret the world and structure our behavior according to a narrative of our own creation.  A story we repeatedly play in our heads which helps us define, analyze and categorize all we see and experience.  More importantly, it is a story with an implicit set of rules that define the way we believe the world works and dictates how we behave in response to it.

Because this story defines our mental paradigm, is self-reinforcing and drives our daily behavior, the only way to change behavior is to invalidate the current paradigm and replace it with a “new storyline.”  To do this, we must create cognitive dissonance and demonstrate that the rules that govern the current worldview no longer apply.  We need to shock the system and interject something new…something unexpected.  By introducing information that runs counter to what is expected, the right hemisphere of the brain fires up, takes a step back and reflects.  Since the right hemisphere is responsible for reflective consciousness, processing “big picture concepts” and creative expression, we need to have it engaged for people to drive daily innovation.

So how do we do this?  Since the brain is programed to reinforce the status quo, how do we introduce new information in a way that stops the brain in its tracks?  Visual management.

When done right, a simple visual (coupled with clear expectations) provides the brain with new information about the status of a process and presence of an abnormality.  Team members are quickly able to see whether the process is performing as expected or a problem has occurred.  Whereas without the visual, the story told may have reinforced a worldview that everything was “ok,” the presence of the visual forces the brain to take a step back, reflect, and reconcile its current paradigm with the new information.

So when driving continuous improvement, never underestimate the power of simple meaningful visuals.  Our brains are programmed to see, analyze and interpret information based on a self-reinforcing story playing in our head.  We construct our own view of the world and the only way to change our thinking (and thus our behavior) is to be presented with new information in a way that can’t be ignored.  Often the simple act of creating “a spot of red in a sea of green” can be the catalyst for significant behavioral change.

Structuring the Development of People

I have written before about the importance of the structure and physical space in driving the development of right behaviors in an organization.  On my last trip to Japan, I was again stuck by the way the japanese use physical space and organizational structure to shape the growth and development of their people.  I think examples of their approach to development can be seen in the landscaping techniques they employ.  The japanese use physical items such as bamboo, rope, etc. to guide the development and growth of plants.  In addition, they tend to contour many of the plants to be an extension of the concrete or other permanent structures around them.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If  you look closely, you will notice that there is a surprising amount of shaping and care that goes into getting each shrub to be uniform in appearance.  You may also notice that they have created a bamboo structure that guides the development and provides the skeleton upon which they are shaping the growth of the shrubs.  Not only am I struck by the care and precision of the use of the bamboo and the twine, but  instead of attaching it directly with twine, they use a padding to protect the shrub from any harsh outcomes that may be experienced from attaching it to the bamboo.

I think this care taken for the plant and its development is a good metaphor for the the way the japanese approach the development of people.  First, they are keenly aware of the use of space and structure in guiding the development of people.  The use of an A3 operates must like the bamboo structure as a tool for coaching and mentoring.  Second, when it comes structuring work, they are obsessive about details and demonstrate a high level of respect for each person (like the care taken with each plant).  This respect shows itself most prominently in two other ways.

First, the japanese not only use visuals to demonstrate abnormal from normal for processes, but they also use visuals as a sign of respect by openly communicating status to everyone and eliminating potential confusion.  Secondly, safety and ergonomic issues are their biggest concern in both daily work and process improvements.  As with the approach to shaping and developing each plant under their care, the japanese use organizational structure and management tools to create an environment of challenge and respect for people.

The Problem with Most Visuals

After spending countless hours analyzing visual management boards in office and manufacturing environments, many fail to live up to the expectations we set for them and die a slow and painful death. Here are three simple mistakes I routinely see made when designing and implementing visual boards:

1.  The boards are overcomplicated and fail to simply and effectively show normal versus abnormal
2. There is very little challenge build into the boards…they are way too “green”
3. The boards are boring…they look the same and lack any emotional connection or creativity

The following is an example of an executive assistant’s board which illustrates these key points:

This type of visual board can be seen in many office environments where the staff has been challenged to “implement visuals in their area” and become lean. In this particular case, the board focuses on scheduling, emails, travel packets and document management. With each category displayed, the goal is 100% (or very close to it) completion of the activity, with a weekly audit established to check on the progress. On the surface, the board is well organized, displayed openly and updated regularly. Upon closer look, however, the visual has a few problems which keep it from being effective as a tool for driving daily continuous improvement.

First, if all the goals are 100% and the assistant can easily achieve them, there is no challenge for her and thus “no problem” identified on the visual for her to solve. Second, this board only displays status on predetermined activities and fails to integrate steps taken to achieve an improved state. It lacks both a challenging vision of the future and clear aggressive targets which stretch the assistant and create “problems” she can then solve through daily improvement activities. It is only by creating this gap between what is possible and what currently is that she can be put into a position of growth and challenged to innovate.

As easy as this may sound, there are a number of issues that arise as soon as you want to make these changes to her board. First, the assistant needs to be open to the idea of wanting to take a risk and progressing toward a challenging goal. She needs to be ok with posting a board that says she is not perfect, but is working on it. Second, she needs to set aside time for addressing the problems that arise and coming up with new ideas to improve. Third, she will most likely need help in both the identification of issues as well as the creativity needed to solve them. If she is like many of us, she may be too close to her own process to be able to innovate. Her role may be better suited to identifying and finding the root cause of the problems, not creatively finding an solution. This puts the burden on the manager to not only follow up and ensure her progress and use of the visual, but assume the role of a mentor and help her develop into a daily problem solver, who is motivated by taking risks and challenging herself to redefine what it means to be an executive assistant and creating value for the organization.