In commenting on the case study appeared in the March issue of Lean Management Journal, Gwendolyn Galsworth, President of Visual Thinking Inc., looks back at her gemba walk at Vistaprint Australia.

Gareth Brown’s concise and insightful description of Vistaprint Australia’s lean journey left me muttering, “Yes that’s true… and that’s true… but don’t forget the bit about… and make sure people understand…”

I had the pleasure of walking Mr Brown’s facility last November, the day before I flew back to the States after three strong working weeks down under. Jim Glover, the newly hired continuous improvement manager, was my tour guide on that Saturday when the machines were stilled and the shop closed. Even on a weekend, the vitality of the workplace was thrumming.

What I experienced in my two hours at Vistaprint was a living, conscious work environment that continually fed me and itself vital information through sensory data, the brain’s favorite flavor of information. You have to see it to get it. And I saw it! All my synapses were firing – and when synapses fire, they are learning.

See the small Velcro-back placard on a manager’s computer, proclaiming “I am the 5S Auditor of the Week.” Great detail. That every manager’s monitor has one such small waiting Velcro strip speaks to us of aligned expectations, shared ownership, and accountability.

The wide array of visual displays across the production floor tells us, well, everything: plant status/SQDCM, maintenance tasks, machine status, hourly production.

The IT Day-By-Day Task Board holds a scattering of reds to show what’s late, stalled or screaming – with a right-side panel with Next Week’s Tasks and one beyond that named 5-Week Plan.

Colorful global road maps everywhere help us remember what we are doing and why. But they have much less immediacy than the laminated map of the plant, with individual improvement projects affixed to it, showing the relevant ideas and status.

The simple, highly visual suggestion process board lets you move ideas along. No hidden detours are possible here. At the mid-point, our ideas are sorted by colour into high, medium, and low benefit – for everyone to see. No secret assessment here.

Piles of cardboard boxes speak to us, with precision, thanks to laminated cards that tell us in colour-coordinated fashion what’s in each box (nicely affixed by a black pressure clip).

Flexible sorting conveyors snake around the high-speed floor. Storage and retrieval are gravity-fed. Creform is used widely to save space, allow portability and get a customised work flow.

Visual devices are everywhere. Though they do not always follow a robust logic of application, they are nonetheless at the heart of Vistaprint’s operational success. It is the thinking that is compelling. Broom closet-sized kiosks, scattered across the floor, double as announcement and problem solving centres plus a place for  thinking and cleaning supplies. Oh, the cleverness of it all!

The process looks deceptively simple, nearly transparent but it is astoundingly complex. Gareth is right in proclaiming the scheduling system world-class. It is cosmic.

The company’s financials testify to a 30% year-over-year growth. The living, energy-infused Vistaprint visual work environment demonstrates how that growth happens.

Can the company go further? You bet. Will it? I can’t wait to see.