I am a huge fan of Gwendolyn Galsworth’s Visual Workplace/Visual Thinking. She describes a visual workplace as “using visual devices for answering all the questions anyone has related to work…questions that are commonplace as well as those so specialized that others would have never thought, in a million years, to ask such a thing.” It’s the first of these questions she then lists – “What do I need to know?” – that I found most impactful. It is now is one of the first questions I ask myself when I’m helping workplaces on their continuous improvement journey. If, pretending I’m a worker in that workplace, I don’t “see” the answer to that question, I know we have improvement opportunities. A visual workplace can be any place, anywhere.
I was reminded of this recently in an unlikely place. It was a Sunday night at a local bowling alley in Baton Rouge – I was there with my husband, my son and his friend. It was family night, which included pizza with the game. I went to place our pizza order at the food counter and on the wall I saw a homemade diagram of three pizza sizes (see banner image): 8”, 12”, and 16”, with the placement of pepperoni drawn out for each size. The diagram also depicted how many slices each pizza would have (depending on the arrangement the pepperoni may or may not have been cut in half). How simple was that?! It perfectly answered the question for the cook of What do I need to know? – I need to know how to place pepperoni and then slice the pizza when baked.
I’ve used the what do I need to know question at the gemba, recently in packaging/warehouses with forklift drivers – what do I need to know? As a forklift driver (hypothetically speaking), I need to know when to bring or remove material from the line. The packaging/warehouse team then worked on ways to signal that information to each other; it is their visual management, their ingenuity. People are just so clever! I love that!
The question helped overcome an obstacle identified by an improvement team I was helping on a packaging changeover. They discovered that a hopper for dispensing bottle caps would inadvertently get filled right before the changeover time. The operators had to count any caps that were left in the hopper at changeover, and if someone inadvertently filled the hopper the counting process slowed down the changeover. In this instance, very specifically, the line needed to know when to fill, how much to fill and when not to fill. Employee engagement soared as different ideas were tried, makeshift devices cobbled together with duct tape, cardboard and plastic jugs, as the team iterated towards a visual cue that worked for them. In the end, they settled on a white board that roughly counted down the remaining order and listed the estimated time of day the changeover would take place. As an unintended benefit, the material handler, seeing the board while driving by the area, could now better plan on when to have the next material ready.
“What do I need to know?” It’s such a powerful question – simple, but powerful. Look around – does your workplace have the answers?