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Where can I find information about visual management?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I can’t find much written about visual management although it seems an important part of lean – any idea where to look?

All lean is essentially visual management, and yes, I agree there is very little written on it – I’m not sure why and it is a fascinating question. Rummaging through my bookcase I found a couple of 1990s books from Productivity Press: Poka-Yoke, edited by Hiroyuki Hirano, 1988; The Visual Factory by Michel Greif, 1991; and Visual Control Systems edited by Nikan Kogyo Shimbun, 1995.

I hadn’t looked at any of them in – ah, decades? Thank you for asking the question. They are fascinating, particularly the Poka-Yoke book, as Poka-Yoke seems to have completely dropped out of the lean conversation, but not that helpful, as there is no clear theory of visual management, and the examples, although intriguing, are rather haphazard.

I’m not sure I have such a clear theory of visual management myself, but I am certain it could be Toyota’s greatest contribution to management. Your question is bang on.

Taiichi Ohno starts his book on workplace management with an optical illusion:

At first, I thought this was just folklore, but I’ve realized over the years that his thinking about misconceptions is critical to any understanding of lean thinking. His core argument, oft-repeated and illustrated is that:

Misconceptions → wrong decisions → waste

And that misconceptions are very hard to change, both for engineers and workers. In Ohno’s mind, the only way to clear up a misconception is to try something else, hence learning by doing.

Conceiving Misconceptions

But where do misconceptions come from? Ohno hardly elaborates, but it’s interesting that his starting point is an optical illusion. He makes the point is that an optical illusion is easy to explain and people are easily persuaded. It turns out that yes, people are easily persuaded but optical illusions are not easy to explain.

Our naïve model of how the brain works is a computer-based metaphor:

Information (from receptor) → processing (cognitive circuits) → conclusion (action/belief)

But the more we learn about the brain the more it looks like it works the other way around:

Simulation of reality → error processing → conclusion

In other words, your brain is dreaming your life. In dreams, it operates without sensory input, so it goes off into weird stuff. During the day, it dreams just the same, but corrects constantly with what it picks up, so it all feels far more “real” – but that’s a reflection that the illusion is more solidly anchored in reality.

In practical terms, this means that when we see a simple illusion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_illusion, or a very elaborate one, such as this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKa0eaKsdA0, our brains are working perfectly normally (I’m told schizophrenic patients see through the illusion).

What this means is that there is a lot of reasoning in the simple act of looking. Basically, your brain assumes things are how they are, and then picks up differences with the assumptions – but only where it looks, and so is easily fooled as many experiments about selective attention have shown (This one is really fun: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo).

A visual system is made of specific control points, but visual management is about directing attention, not controlling behavior. This modern understanding of the importance and nature of visual management leads us to clear up hidebound misconceptions:

  • Posting more information is not visual management. Having PowerPoint slides on the wall with complicated indicator graphs is posting information, which can be useful, but not visual management. To be management, visual management needs to be intuitive (concrete) and point towards one specific thing. Crowding a wall with stuff people “ought to know,” such as a bulletin board, is the opposite of visual management as you have to make an effort to find what is relevant to you, so you probably won’t see it unless you’re already looking for it. People don’t pay attention to what is important, they find important what they pay attention to.
  • Visual control is not necessarily visual management. The traditional term for visual management is “visual control” and comes out of an era obsessed with controlling things and people. Control points are key to understanding visual management because they are the specific areas where things are controlled to make sure we’re doing the right thing – and ask questions when things are off. But control points, both outputs and processes can easily multiply to infinity. Controlling everything visually is not visual management. Controlling stuff randomly is not visual management either.

visual management is about setting an architecture of control points that help people orient on what the game is. People do not need to be controlled. They need help with orientation. Think of any sport. When you go to a match you will see:

  1. A scoreboard – not much of a game if we can’t tell who’s winning
  2. An arena – lines on the ground and hoops to show where the game is played and what marks a goal
  3. In soccer, yellow and red cards – a referee is there to count fouls
  4. Lots of rules you don’t see but are kept somewhere in a rule book
  5. Tactical plans to improve the team’s plan which you’ll see in the locker rooms
  6. Standard exercises to get the players in shape according to the game

This structure of control points provides a path for people to play the game. It shows:

  1. The objective: Get that ball in the goal.
  2. The next step: Prioritize and execute your next step wherever you are in the field.
  3. Who to call in case of foul: Examine and solve problems.
  4. Spaces for improvement: Dedicate out-of-the-field spaces to scratching heads about tactics and training.

The control points themselves can vary widely. In lean the most spectacular example of a control point system is kanban with adjacent andon. But you can visualize anything you need to. For instance, here, on the Gemba of TSG in Italy, the warehouse manager visualizes implemented suggestions to show people they have a real impact on their operations.

visual management is more than just the sequence of the control points. It’s all about the management. The purpose of the system is:

  1. People are autonomous in knowing what to do: Just like a red light makes you autonomous to handle a street crossing without a cop standing by, a good control point system lets you see where you should go/not go without anyone having to tell you.
  2. Management is a chain of help: Management is on hand to jump in when obstacles appear to get work back on track and figure out why.
  3. It’s used to learn to play the game better: By practicing the game and solving one problem after the other, we learn to play the game better.

Two Sides of True visual management

In fact, there always is a visual management system in place – whether you see it explicitly or not – and the question is whether the system gets you better or worse at what you do.

In fact, there always is a visual management system in place – whether you see it explicitly or not – and the question is whether the system gets you better or worse at what you do.For instance, Toyota-style kanban with constant pressure on taking out kanban cards steers you towards the ideal of one-piece flow and gets you to fix all the unpredictable aspects of production while increasing quality, flexibility, and productivity. As we see time and time again, this makes you incredibly better at manufacturing.

On the other hand, the agile-style kanban software developers have come up with visualizes work as “tickets” on the board and is essentially a backlog management systems for managers to feel on top of things – it doesn’t help with either quality, delivery, or flexibility, other than visualizing a very global mass of things to do (one ticket can represent an easy or difficult task, short or long, etc. so it doesn’t really visualize anything useful, and the sequence of tickets can change, so it doesn’t visualize a queue either).

To grasp visual management we have to understand both the visual aspect – clear, intuitive control points – and the management side – orienting and supporting people, not controlling their actions. In doing so, we can create paths to success where, as you step on the road, you can see the direction (towards the temple of excellence at the top of the mountain, or towards the mud of mediocrity in the valley), see what next step to take and how fast you’re progressing, face obstacles and think flexibly to overcome them with the help of your colleagues, and from these small victories, discover more about the path and learn to understand the way more deeply so that you become a more accomplished traveler.

A bad visual management system is static – it will list the endless criteria you need to somehow get right in order to achieve “best practice,” but leaves you no way to prioritize or know where to start – or indeed solve issues when you encounter them.

A good visual management system is one that reveals purpose, salience to prioritize and execute, and warnings to head-up obstacles and learn to overcome them. In that, the visual management system can also be kaizened endlessly until it becomes part of the normal way of doing things.

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Simon Gary October 14, 2019

This is a fascinating article.

The thread that runs through it, to me, appears to be where the next developments in lean will lay.

If lean is truly to be seen as a "people" system, then the next level of development is to closer integrate it with the users - i.e. the lean experts of tomorrow are likely to be competent psychologists.

Visual keys would certainly be a part of that.

Pierre-Louis Ducroix October 14, 2019

Thank you for this very well written article.

The theory about being in a constant illusion is mind blowing.

Ricky Finnigan October 21, 2019

This article is a very intuitive method of lean thinking. A point that stuck out to me is how visual management is within the operation whether you realize it or not. I believe the most important piece in this is how misconceptions can be created which often times can create waste. I also found the analogy of a basketball game to control points in your operation was very suiting. It is important that we are visually aware of weak points and use tools such as kanbans to help us enhance flow and flexibility.

Julie Savage-Fournier October 22, 2019

Good sources on visual management can now be found in cognitive sciences, neurosciences, and ergonomics. There are stimuli humans respond to, and they are cultural. We need to understand this dynamic and the symbols people are used to automatically interpret.

A good visual management system will reduce the cognitive load of people as it can leverage brain automatisms and free up computing powers to more complex work.

Michael McCarthy October 26, 2019

Sustain Your Gains Re: Simon Gary's comment that "lean experts of tomorrow are likely to be competent psychologists." My book Sustain Your Gains adds the neuroscience of behavior to the tools of Lean.  People's behavior sustains Lean. My book shows how to build the new process behaviors into self-sustaining habits.  Kaizen events and other 'one off' process improvements often don't sustain their results over time.  I call this the 9th Muda: failure to sustain.

Tim McCracken October 26, 2019

Gwendolyn Galsworth has written a couple books on the subject, including "Visual Workplace: Visual Thinking".  In it she talks about a "10 doorway model" of visual thinking and implementation of visual management.  Worth checking out.


Gwendolyn Galsworth October 27, 2019

Hi Michael. It’s Gwendolyn. I just got back from several weeks on the road and saw your stimulating article on visual management (VM). As ever, you write so well and interestingly. I think I understand many of the points you make about VM--but also think I have a slightly (or maybe, very) different take on definition and impact. If you allow me, I’d like to add some thoughts… perhaps along the lines that Tim McCracken/above suggests.

In my world, visual management is a set of narrow-spectrum solutions, aimed at management’s continual need for information. Even better if it’s visual. As such, VM can have an important positive impact on the enterprise—but only at a 10% to 15% level, as I gauge it. VM is relevant and useful but not the only game in town. Thankfully. VM cannot (and does not) aim at company-wide visual transformation: installing a wide and effective array of high-performing visual devices across the enterprise—a detailed operational language that is visual. That is the purpose and power of a visual workplace, created by a workforce (all levels) that knows how to think visually. VM is an indispensable element. But only an element. If we miss this point, we will expect VM to transform when it can only contribute.

It would be inaccurate to write this off as merely an issue of semantics. Words matter. And the current  usage of a word is almost always tied to its roots. VM’s roots, for example, tell us so much. For one thing, the term “management/manage” comes from the Latin “manus” (hand) and “agere” (to act).  When it entered the French a very long time ago, its “original” form was ménager and it meant: “to handle or train horses.” (On discovering this, some people may mutter, “…And that’s just what it feels like when my boss manages me!”)

By the 18th century, the term had taken on a modern business usage, ménagement. Boy, we can learn a lot from a word’s ancient roots.

Visual Management entered the popular lexicon in the last decade when lean wanted to credit the key role that information plays in lean transformations—especially when the information is made visual. VM promotes a specific set of visual solutions that helps management (supervisors-managers-executives)  “see:” dashboards, metrics that monitor, screens, Obeya rooms, and posters of the corporate intent (the so-called “house.”). Flat 2D devices that provide line-of-sight. Who would deny the importance of these? Not I! And, clearly, not you. They are of tremendous help.  To the tune of 15% positive impact, company-wide.

Yes, only 15%. Why? Because VM devices TELL US—they do not MAKE US. VM is a passive form of visual information-sharing. It does not have a direct impact on behavioral change. It cannot. We can see VM; but we cannot do VM. This difference is huge.   

A fully-functioning visual enterprise (and the visual workplace technologies required to achieve it) travels far, far beyond seeing and monitoring. Such an enterprise targets and visually masters performance. Think of the difference between a street sign that tell us to SLOW DOWN/CHILDREN PLAYING and the pair of speed bumps that makes us SLOW DOWN! The speed bump is embedded performance. Embedded behavior. The impact of that behavior is where the data for the company’s dashboards and Obeya room come from.

That behavior is what the other 85% of workplace visuality identifies and implements. That’s the focus of the rest of the visual continuum of which VM is a part. I call this continuum my 10-Doorway Model (as Tim mentioned). Other parts include: Visual Where/elevated 5s (aka, Work That Makes Sense); Visual Leadership; Visual Material Control/Visual Pull Systems; Visual Quality; Visual Machine; Visual-Lean Office; and so on. The process of putting these in place is called a visual conversion. That’s when employees on every level of the company learn how to think visually; they learn how to spot information deficits related to their own work and how to eliminate those deficits through solutions that are visual. This includes info deficits on the attribute level that are so superbly addressed and erased through the splendid poka-yoke systems that you so rightly mention, Michael.

So I wanted to make mention of these things, Michael, in response to your thought-provoking article. I sincerely thank you for writing it. For anyone who wants more, visit www.visualworkplace.com. You’ll find my 10-Doorway Model under APPROACH. Also see my article on Visual Management/The Power of Seeing (Target/2015). Kindest and best regards to everyone in our community. Let the workplace speak. Gwendolyn Galsworth

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