"Uncommon" Visual Management

Lean IT visual systems are a balancing act of what’s needed by and easiest to use for the team that owns particular visual boards, and what others outside the direct team need to know. Often there is a core set of people that will use a particular visual very frequently in order to get their daily work done, while there is another set of stakeholders who need information from the board as well, but less frequently. There is sometimes tension between these groups as to how the data will be represented. The team that creates and maintains the boards has intimate knowledge of their work and may want to use shortcuts, acronyms, and other codified language unfamiliar to those outside the team. The outsiders, who include managers, other teams, or customers, want easy-to-understand data that don’t require a special decoder ring—which unfortunately means extra work for the team to create and maintain the boards.

There is a need for visual systems to be understood without specialized team knowledge. Creating visuals that only a select group of people can understand—when others outside the team need the information too—is just as bad as hiding it in a report. The point of a visual system is to radiate information; requiring someone from the team to act as an interpreter not only defeats the purpose, but it also wastes time. If information needs to be known, it should be visible and accessible without needing a translator.

But not all information made visible is needed by outsiders. Some of the visuals are only needed by a specific team or group of people. For example, for a team that has created rules for how members should act in the team space, the rules are likely only needed by the team. In this case, don’t micromanage the look and feel; leave it up to the team. Another example would be when the work flow of a team that interacts with five other teams needs to be understood by members of the other teams and perhaps project managers as well. When visual information is needed by both the team and outsiders, what is the right balance between team efficiency and outsider understanding?

To answer this question, many companies require some level of standardization for their visuals. This allows people in disparate areas the ability to understand the visuals of another group quickly while not placing too high a burden on the team that maintains the visual system. Similarly to standard work, in this case standardization means a baseline put in place because it’s the best way we know how to do something right now but it may change in the future. Be careful not to resort to something we call commonization.

Commonization is doing something the same way for the purpose of consistency. Consistency is not the purpose of a lean visual management system; providing visuals that drive collaboration, understanding, and accountability, and that act as a magnet to draw people in is the purpose. In some cases that requires standardization. The standards can be as simple as posting a key for the colors or codes used, or as elaborate as an integrated numbering system to be used for all work flow items. Each transformation is unique and there will be some trial and error as you work to find the right balance for your company. 4

Additional Visual Elements for the Model Line

Understanding the theory behind visual management is well and good, but what are the next steps for your transformation? There is good news and bad news. The good news is that there are a few more elements of the visual system outlined in this chapter for you to implement. The bad news is that they are not enough. Unfortunately, there is no one right way to complete a visual management system. In fact, your system will never be complete. The visuals are subject to a never-ending cycle of continuous improvement, just like all the other tools and practices in your lean system. Get used to this cycle! As a lean leader your mind becomes restless, looking for ways to improve, eliminate waste, and engage associates. The best lean leaders develop kaizen eyes—always on the lookout for daily process improvement opportunities.

For now, let’s take a look at some new elements to add to the visual management system.

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