Let’s Get Visual: Visual Management and Dynamic Work Design

February 28, 2017

A year ago Don and I took a trip to Nagoya Japan to spend some time working with our partners at Toyota Engineering Company (TEC). We spent a day touring their school and rest of the week was dedicated to visiting sites engaged in redesigning their work (we also spent some time in the Toyota museum, which, if you ever happen to have a free afternoon in Nagoya, I highly recommend).  It was a very educational week.  Toyota is not the only company that designs effective work, but I never skip an opportunity to visit one of their facilities or chat with their managers.

I learned a ton during the trip but the biggest insight came at the hotel bar the night before we left and, as is often the case, ended up getting enshrined on a cocktail napkin (see photo below).

Visual management is a key part of the Dynamic Work Design toolkit and absolutely critical to creating an effective Dynamic Management System. Don was first introduced to it by Takashi Tanaka who was involved in the early efforts to develop the Prius (and who also happened to be at the bar with us).  I often joke in class that as an academic I don’t really care whether or not something works, but if it works I absolutely must know why (for the record, I really do care whether things work or not).  At ShiftGear we have had great success using visual management to help our clients, but, as always, I want to make sure I understand why.  The napkin really helped.

The napkin was produced by Toshio Horikiri and Hiroki Sato. Toshio designed and built more than twenty plants for Toyota and Hiroki played a critical role in the early days of the Lexus program.  Both of them know their way around Toyota and are pretty much Jedi masters of work design.  So, I asked them about to give me a little history of visual management at Toyota.  I speak no Japanese, so a lot of what happened was explained via an interpreter, but I think I get the basic story.  In the 1980s Toyota leadership realized that many of the big opportunities to improve were no longer on the shop floor.  Toyota production system methods had been incredibly successful in improving assembly lines, but how could those basic disciplines be moved to other types of work?  “Watching” is a key discipline in Toyota. Taiichi Ohno was a huge proponent of going to “gemba,” which roughly translates to the place where the work happens.  He once wrote:

Make your workplace into a showcase that can be understood by everyone at a glance. In terms of quality, it means to make the defects immediately apparent. In terms of quantity, it means that progress or delay, measured against the plan, and is made immediately apparent. When this is done, problems can be discovered immediately, and everyone can initiate improvement plans.

But, how do you watch knowledge work? As Toshio and Hiroki told me (and scribbled on the Hyatt’s cocktail napkin) the key to moving Toyota ideas off the factory floor was “making things visible that can’t be seen.”  And that’s the essence of visual management.

I recently read a paper by three leading social psychologists that introduced the idea of the scaffolded mind. (You can find it here, http://bit.ly/2017MORESG). The basic idea is that much of our cognitive infrastructure is built on our experience with the physical world (for both evolutionary and developmental reasons) and thus our ability to understand more abstract ideas is often influenced by our more primal physical understanding.  So, for example, in one experiment, interviewers holding a warm cup of coffee were more likely to rate the job candidate as warm than those who held a cold drink.  The way that we understand abstract concepts is built on the scaffold provided by our experience with the physical world.

I now suspect that there is a very good reason why much of what we know about work design originated with physical work like assembling cars and motorcycles. Our brains are adapted to dealing with work that has a physical manifestation.  Humans have been dealing with physical stuff for millions of years-- a recent discovery in Africa suggests that tool usage predates the arrival of the human species by almost 700,000 years (see http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32804177).  Evolution has thus had a lot of time to give us the cognitive tools to work with physical objects.  Knowledge work, in contrast, is, from an evolutionary perspective, a brand new phenomenon.  On occasion we are amazingly good at it, but it still probably doesn't come as naturally as its more physical counterpart.

Consider a very simple example: when a production line stops unexpectedly, everybody in the factory knows about it immediately. The lack of motion generates a clear signal that attracts our attention and anybody who can assist will probably go help.  In contrast, knowledge work processes stop all of the time—somebody gets stuck or distracted or can’t get the inputs they need—but because there is usually no physical signal indicating the problem, its less likely to attract our attention.  In fact, most people have come to expect that knowledge work processes proceed in random fits and starts.

Visual management definitely works. Using it, our students and clients have produced dramatic gains in the effectiveness of a variety of knowledge work processes. Following Toshio and Hiroki, making the unseen visible provides a powerful approach for transferring excellence in doing physical work to areas where the work has few if any tangible manifestations.  I don’t yet have definitive proof, but I suspect that we will find that visual management helps us connect with brain functions that have been developed over the millions of years that we have interacted with in our physical environment.  I use it myself to manage my various research projects and I know that writing a green number on my board feels good (green means I exceeded my daily target) and a red one makes me mad (red means I fell short of my target).  It’s a very different feeling that when I used to just say, “Today I will write.”

There are many facets to developing a good visual management system and it’s definitely not one size fits all. It can be used everywhere from the shop floor all the way up to the executive suite. Using it to create a Dynamic Management System  (https://shiftgearwork.wpengine.com/tips-successful-dynamic-work-design-projects) is on going process that can take a few years (here is an example from our friends the Broad Institute https://www.broadinstitute.org/blog/wall-sticky-notes-fuels-genomics-broad). But here is an easy way to get started that generate gains almost immediately:

Most organizations take on too many projects and suffer predictable consequences (see https://hbr.org/product/past-the-tipping-point-the-persistence-of-firefighting-in-product-development/CMR207-PDF-ENG). Begin by creating, your own version of the schematic below.  The first part represents a “holding pen” for new ideas, ranked in terms of effort required to execute them and their potential impact.  The column in the middle represents those ideas that have been prioritized but not started, and the final part represents a typical development funnel.  Make sure you use the phases and labels common to your organizations. Next, list every project underway on a PostIt, along with its owner and the date it is supposed to exit the phase that it is currently in (e.g., move from concept to detailed design).  Finally, create a simple visual method for showing when a project has missed its date.  I draw a red box around late PostIts on my board (refer to board above), others use a smaller red PostIt on top with the new date.  Now review your funnel with your team at least once per week.  You should do three things:

  • First, go through each PostIt that is supposed to move that week. If it is late, mark it and do an analysis of why.  The key here to create a rapidly acting feedback process that allows you to spot stuck projects immediately (this is a manifestation of the first principle of Dynamic Work Design, reconcile activity and intent).
  • Second, determine whether or not you have space to add a new project. If the answer is yes, pull from the top of the middle column. Here you are manifesting principle four, manage optimal challenge.  You don't optimize traffic flow through a city by cramming is many cars on to the road as you can.  Similarly, too many projects slows progress
  • Third, revisit the middle column and make sure you still agree with the priorities. If conditions have changed, it might be time to re-order.


You will probably learn three things. First, you probably have too many projects.  Most knowledge work organizations take on too much work, and, just like a Friday afternoon traffic jam, end up not getting much done.  Second, your priorities probably aren’t as clear as you think.  Meeting in front of the board every week will force you to get very clear about which projects are really the most important.  Third, you probably didn’t know where your bottlenecks were located.  If every PostIt in the “assess feasibility” column is behind, that’s telling you something.

Projects are a key engine of growth for many organizations. Making the unseen visible can make this engine run far more effectively.

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Nelson Repenning

Nelson helps translate successful fieldwork into underlying principles with rigorous academic underpinnings for use in his work at MIT as well as by ShiftGear.

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