Jan. 31 2007 04:35 PM

Imagine being at a baseball game and the only thing you saw was the score of the game. There was no information on balls and strikes, errors made, how many outs there were or what inning the game was in. Unfortunately, there are many companies that operate with the same lack of visual controls. The players (employees) do not know their productivity as an individual or as a group. They are unaware of customer demand, average production lead-time, fulfillment commitments, scrap rate, error rate and so on.


Visual controls are essential elements to creating a common communication that the entire organization understands. When creating visual controls, there are some rules that should be followed.

They should be visible from a far distance

Keep them simple

When color coding, always use bright colors

Make charts consistent so they are easy to interpret

Use snapshot pictures to show exactly how something should look

Provide a checklist that shows employees how to get to the next level of achievement

All visual controls should be easy to read and understand

Visual safety controls should be everywhere potential safety hazards exist

Use common colors that people easily understand (i.e., green for go, yellow for warning, red for stop, etc.)


There are five basic elements that we will look at to help us understand how to create a visual system. A visual control system is an organization that applies all the levels of visual controls to communicate information accurately, quickly and completely to all the people who need it and those who are in the area. The five elements are the work environment, standards/procedures, process/alerts, metrics and error proofing.


Know Your Surroundings

The first level is the work environment; it is the foundation that all other levels are built on. It is the start from where the cultural change in your organization will take place. The areas of the visual work environment include the manufacturing/distribution floor, office, business unit and the work cell. The visual controls include undertaking a 5S+1 program (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, sustain and safety), which will provide a platform for the other visual controls. Label desktops and organize items so that they are easier to find, and you will know when something is missing. Tape off areas in the warehouse to designate particular work cells, equipment and walkways. The use of overhead signs in common areas, such as break rooms, departments, designated communication areas and group areas, is also important. Finally, keep the color-coding consistent throughout the facility. If the color red means stop in one area, then it should mean stop throughout the entire company.


Visualize, Visualize, Visualize

The second level is the visual standards. This is an ongoing process that inspires improvements and is accessible to everyone. This visual control creates ownership, and in that, employees become directly involved in managing knowledge and developing their own methods. This will result in the sharing of information and adaptation of rules and methods. The visual standards are a living, breathing document that the employees create so they have the ownership. It should be clear to everyone, not just to the employees who work in the area. It is also beneficial when training new employees. The document should include procedures for the process with work instructions and work aids to increase process knowledge and reduce training time. In addition, take and post pictures of how the area should look. A picture is worth a thousand words, and pictures can document actions, steps to take, techniques and machine settings. Making visual standards understandable will lead to better chances of them being followed.


Alert Your Employees

The third level is the visual prompts/alerts, such as flashing lights, which are a valuable visual control. This level can help maintain conveyor line productivity and alert the employees when bottleneck conditions occur. One example of an alert visual control is an andon light, which is used to show the condition of a conveyor line or machines operating status. Typically, it has a three-color light system. If the green light is on, all is running normally. When the yellow light comes on, this instructs the operator that a warning condition has been detected and should be monitored. If the red light comes on, the conveyor or machine should be shut down immediately. This denotes that the conveyor or machine is jammed or has mechanical problems and needs to shut down for repair or adjustment. This visual control can be controlled by the operator or by the equipment itself. In a best-case scenario, it is always preferred to have the equipment change the status of itself. The operator may run the conveyor or equipment on a red light status and not make the necessary action before damage is done to the conveyor or machine.


Benchmarks Are Crucial

The fourth level is the metrics that a company measures to track areas such as productivity, lead times, quality, errors, rejects, etc. The key to using this visual control effectively is to avoid overload production charts if they are hard to read, they will be ineffective. Make the charts large in scale and color, and clearly update them throughout the day. The use of production boards can be either as a group performance or individual performance or both. The work cell, by an individual or a combination effort, can also display the quality level of an area. Many companies are afraid to display individual performance in fear that it will embarrass low-performing employees.


If expectations are not clearly defined and employees are not made aware of them on a daily basis, then you are doing the employee more harm than good. Other metrics that can be displayed for effective communication are lost time accidents, company objectives, financials, downtime and on-time deliveries. The idea is to provide as much information to your employees as possible so they are involved in the daily flow of the work, targets and objectives. This will create awareness by the employee as to how his or her performance affects the companys goals.


Eliminating Errors

The fifth level is error proofing visuals this proofing helps eliminate costly mistakes. Templates and interface devices can be applied to eliminate making a bad part in a manufacturing cell, or your organization can create an interface like a computerized picking system to dramatically reduce errors. Allow the operator to see, feel and hear the status of operation. Obtain feedback and cues to understand the impact of the employees actions. Use sound for visibility a bell when a carton sealer gets jammed or a loud buzzing when a conveyor is overloaded. Think of the whistle of a teakettle that signals to you that the tea is done. The wear indicator on your brakes makes a squeal sound when they are low and need replacing. These are all examples of visual and audible controls for error proofing. If these visual cues were not present, the carton sealer would jam up and do damage to the sealer, tea in the kettle would start to reduce, the brakes would grind down and cause a potential accident.


All companies need to look at their current levels of visual controls and ask the necessary questions. Are we effectively communicating to our employees? Can anyone walk through the plant and see the status of the work? Do the employees know and understand our metrics? Do they have a part in creating the standards? Do they know how their efforts contribute to our overall objectives? Do they know how to perform their tasks safely? If your company can answer yes to all of these questions, then you are well on your way to becoming a top-tier visually controlled facility!


Richard Kay is President of RGK Lean Consulting and has over 16 years of experience in manufacturing and distribution. He can be reached at richard.kay@rgkleanconsulting.com.