Visual Management: Quick Hacks to Lead and Manage With Clarity

Visual management is a concept from the continuous improvement world. In this article, we’ll define what it is and how you can use it as a critical component to good leadership practice.

Here’s the quick answer:

What is Visual Management? It’s a management technique, derived from lean manufacturing principles, which allows everyone to see and understand important information in the work area, fast.

Visual management ensures that information is displayed in plain site, so everyone can see what’s working to plan and what’s not – all within about 30 seconds. This then allows teams to fix mistakes when they happen and to learn from them to develop continuous improvement.

The Hidden Workplace

There’s a difference between a hidden workplace and a visual one.

In a hidden workplace, you’ll often find:

  • There’s not much information around to tell us how we’re getting on;
  • We can’t see if important actions and tasks have been completed or not;
  • We can’t see what the best way of working is;
  • We don’t know who needs help and when they need it.

Metrics may well get tracked, but if they do, they’re normally on systems and spreadsheets, which are updated electronically, but are rarely discussed frequently among teams.

The net result:

  • There’s a disconnect between work being done and the results that are seen by management and no one else;
  • People often work in disorganised workplaces;
  • Noone knows what success looks like each day;
  • As a leader, when we find out that things haven’t worked to plan, it’s often too late to fix;
  • People are normally left to get on with things, with little interaction with the team and from their manager.

One of the biggest problems resulting from a hidden workplace, is that communication often suffers.

We’ve defined in previous articles, the importance that communication has to play on team morale, and engagement. To get straight to the point, where there’s no communication, productivity, morale, and team spirit is severely hampered in most team environments.

How Many of the Following do you Review and Discuss Regularly with your Team?

Do you….

  • Discuss daily team performance with your team members?
  • Are these metrics clear to see and updated over the course of the day?
  • Do you monitor status to plan and check in, to see how your team is getting on? (E.G. How many orders or jobs have been completed against the target, so far)?
  • Is it clear to see where the team needs help without having to necessarily ask?
  • Are daily critical tasks clear to see and do you know if they have been completed?
  • Does everyone know what is expected of them and what success looks like today?
  • Are there visual instructions to show how to perform certain critical activities?
  • Is it clear where everything goes, whereby no-one spends time looking for information or equipment?

If you can’t answer yes to all of the above questions, then chances are you’re working in a more hidden workplace, than a visual one.

The Visual Management Rule

When it comes to visual management, use the mantra of:

What is important to the team, should be measured; what gets measured, should be highly visual, so you know status within 30 seconds.

Now cast your eye into the future. Imagine how easy it would be if you could see the status of  performance, your team’s metrics and key activities within 30 seconds?

You wouldn’t have to hunt around and chase things, would you? Neither would your team.

You know where the issues are and what needs to be improved. Your team knows what’s expected of them, too.

It’s easier to coach your team around performance, when everyone has clarity.

The Visual Management Workplace

Flip a hidden workplace on its head and turn it into a visual one and you’ll find a highly efficient one that has visual management at the core of everything it does. The key is to make it clear what is normal and expected, and when something isn’t normal – or where there’s a gap to plan.

Here are some examples of visual management that can be used in any work setting:

Dials with coloured backgrounds to signal levels of accomplishment – Having detailed red, amber, green clearly shows whether things are working as normal or not, and where to apply focus.

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In the example above, none of the metrics are in the green (acceptable zone) and need improvement, however, the priority points of focus would be to get Arrival to Physician and Arrival to Discharge improved now.

A point to note: These dials don’t have to be electronic or automated. A simple manual display, updated regularly is just what’s needed in most cases.

Graphs showing trends over time – You can track results through the day, week or even over the course of a month, or more, to show a trend of your performance to plan. Notice how easy it is to see status: anything below the target line is a gap to plan and needs to be addressed.

In the graph below, the target line has been replaced by red blocks to show not all work has been completed as expected.

With these types of charts, you can see trends.

  • Is performance improving over time, or getting worse? 
  • Are there certain parts of the month where performance always seems to drop – why?
  • Can we forecast trending issues, so we can put extra resources in at certain times?
  • How far are we cumulatively behind plan this month? 

A team board with charts to show performance to plan – These can show many different things, which are pertinent to the team. Typical things could be:

  • Team metrics;
  • Daily team tasks;
  • Actions;
  • Lessons learned.

The key is to make it a central hub in the work area, so the team can discuss and review performance to plan every day. The above dials and trend graphs can also be included, to show daily and hourly performance to plan.

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In the board above from, we can see:

  • A daily actions and ideas sections, so the team can agree improvement ideas and ways to get back on track;
  • Metrics updated by hand;
  • Important notices and information;
  • Audit scores;
  • Team tasks.

It’s easy to see what’s working and what’s not in the board above. 

  • The metric “OEE” seems to be to plan (it’s currently at green status) – no need to take questions;
  • The daily scrap figure is also green status – No problems there;
  • The changeover metric is behind plan and we’re now in the red – the team are 1 hour behind plan. It would be a good time to ask how the team can get back on track and what they need to do this;
  • You can also see in the graph underneath this changeover status, that the majority of time, the team is struggling to work in the green zone. What challenges are the team facing that prevent them from changing between jobs faster? 

The critical component of team boards is to try to keep them manual. The act of completing the board by hand and filling out the charts, creates powerful ownership – coupled with the act of reviewing and discussing every day or indeed during the day, if you’re measuring more frequently, helps drive accountability and clarity.

Pictures of acceptable and unacceptable parts or information – At times, you may need to display information very quickly. In this case, creating a long worded note can be replaced by, yes you’ve guessed it… something visual and to the point.

It’s easy to see what the standard to work to is. Pictures paint a thousand words, so tone down on the descriptive wording, and visually explain what needs to happen… all within 30 seconds.

The Benefits of Visual Management

The obvious benefit of visual management is to be able to see ‘status’ of what’s important, within 30 seconds.

Here’s the knock-on effect of being able to do this:

Focus on the process 

The ability to understand where the process is going wrong, allows the team to see how to improve and stay on target. This factual-based view helps steer conversations away from subjective and personal views and onto what’s actually happening.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • “90% of the new projects are stuck at the design stage”;
  • “Over 80% of rework is coming from the assembly stage”;
  • We’re consistently not achieving our 95% target of quotes within 2 hours;
  • Our delivery performance is 75%, yet our target is 90%.

This data helps us form conversations around the problem, rather than the traditional “You’re not hitting your targets” rhetoric. Instead, we can state the problem (gap to plan) and then ask the team for ideas to improve.

The Ability to Coach

As a leader, your job is not to fix things and come up with answers. It’s to ensure you can easily highlight where things are wrong and coach your team to make improvements; to listen to them and support them. We’ve written an article on how to do this, and being able to manage one minute at a time.

In the lean world, coaching normally focuses around the following sequential questions:

  • What is the target? Asking this, allows the team or individual to reflect on how things are going to plan right now, and to refer to their visual management board;
  • How are we performing now? This allows the team or person to confirm where they are, based on the target. It also allows them to acknowledge if there is a gap to plan;
  • What barriers are causing this gap? Notice, we’re not telling them the answer? We’re not pointing the blame, also. We’re asking what they see are the problems. This is a great coaching question to help them reflect and identify ideas that are preventing them from achieving their targets;
  • What idea are you working on to help improve the gap? Get them to pick an idea and try it, to see if it works;
  • When can we see the results? Agree when to return and see if it works, so you can carry on the coaching conversation.

This follows the continuous improvement model, which is the cornerstone to a high performing team. Here’s an article we’ve created to help you get started on implementing continuous improvement.

The Ability to Create Standard Ways of Doing Things

When we see gaps to plan, we want to fix the process causing these problems. This means that you need to transition from “who did it?” to “Where is the process failing?” By seeing the failure, we can then improve the process at the root cause, so it doesn’t happen again.

When we do this, it should be standardised as the new way of working. Following this method allows everyone to improve processes and share best practice – thus improving communication, too.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that we are currently only moving 50% of quotes in 2 hours. By making this metric visual, we can see performance, and engage in discussions to identify what’s going wrong.

In this instance, by questioning the process, we find that the increased length of time comes from a lack of information from the sales team before the quote stage.

Simply by creating a new standard enquiry form for the sales team to follow, allows all the information to be gained up front, and therefore speed the quoting process up.

This may not have been spotted if we didn’t measure the process and discuss problems there and then, using visual management.

Sharing Information

If there is important information that needs to be shared, then visual management allows us to do this very effectively.

Here are some examples of information sharing:

  • A new procedure;
  • Lessons learned from a specific part of the process that is error prone;
  • Daily team tasks to be completed – who’s doing what and by when;
  • Actions – what improvement actions are being followed, by whom and when will they be completed.

Quick Visual Management Tools To Get Started

Here are a few core tools that any office, warehouse or manufacturing team should look to deploy, as a part of good management. As a leader, start implementing visual management with your teams today, by creating these foundations:

Make Your Team Tasks Visual

  1. Define what tasks need to be completed by your team. These can be daily and weekly activities;
  2. Now make these visual, and post them in the central area of the team;
  3. On a daily basis, before work starts, get the team to assign these tasks themselves and keep track by updating them when completed during the day.

Here’s an example of a simple visual task board:

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At the start of the week, essential team tasks begin in red.  As they get completed, they’re turned over to green status, showing that they’re complete.

It’s a simple way to show the critical team tasks today, who’s doing them and when they’ve been completed, so no one forgets.

Track Your Team’s Metrics

  1. If you’ve got your team metrics already, track them on a team board;
  2. As per the team tasks above, place these metrics on a board in the central work area of the team;
  3. Encourage your team members to own a metric each, and update their chart during the day;
  4. Use this to help monitor any gaps to plan or ideas for improvement and to discuss on a day-by-day basis, where they are to plan.

There are many more things you can use visual management for, but quite simply, if you’re not adopting this concept in your workplace, then you’re missing a vital basic element of good leadership and communication.

Remember, what’s important should be visual. This allows you and the team to openly discuss problems, communicate amongst each other, identify ideas and for you to coach your team to better themselves and their processes.