Gwendolyn D Galsworth, President/Founder of Visual Thinking Inc and The Visual-Lean® Institute in Portland, Oregon, draws on her experience as a visuality expert to explain how visual management can support connectivity of functions and areas within an organisation and therefore promote a more end-to-end view of its processes.

Over the past 30 years, our societal understanding of the body has shifted away from the traditional medical view of it as a collection of discrete parts: a hand, an ear, a heart, a liver, an irritated bowel, and so forth. We have learned to appreciate the body holistically and in doing so, we consider many if not all parts of the human system when we are ill. Instead of isolating symptoms, we increasingly see them in the context of our overall health. We have learned to see health as an integrated outcome.

Increasingly, it is the same way with the work environment. We are learning that an aligned and coherent organisational culture is more agile, more profitable, more creative, and – we say – healthier than its traditional counterpart, the vertical business model of many silos. We have begun to replace the silos of separation with a new paradigm of enterprise excellence: the end-to-end connectivity of the holistic organisation.

Hidden in plain sight, the visuality of this new enterprise plays an indispensable role in this transformation.

Here I do not refer to the limited view of visuality as an array of discrete, isolated point solutions that make targeted, solitary contributions. Useful though such visual devices are, viewing them in this way limits their effectiveness and consigns them to the same functional silo mindset that governs the organisation we want to leave behind. Unless we frame these devices within categories of visual function, we will fail to see – and therefore fail to measure, predict, and require – their sizeable impact on the bottom line. We will fail to see the truth: visuality is a language, one that ties the entire enterprise together and drives the corporate intent. Visuality doesn’t just support an aligned, open and high-performing work culture; it creates it.  

Visuality is not simply seeing. A visual workplace embeds meaning into the living landscape of work. In doing that, it embeds language. 

The sheer size of this food processing site works against connectivity (Figure 1A). Add a green ribbon border for pedestrian traffic (Figure 1B) that introduces colour and beauty into an otherwise beige production landscape and we also gain a mechanism which literally connects the far-flung departments of the central value stream. The inclusiveness of this device is amplified when we add a hatched cross walk for forklifts.

The sheer size of this food processing site works against
connectivity (Figure 1A). Add a green ribbon border for
pedestrian traffic (Figure 1B) that introduces colour and
beauty into an otherwise beige production landscape
and we also gain a mechanism which literally connects
the far-flung departments of the central value stream.
The inclusiveness of this device is amplified when we
add a hatched cross walk for forklifts.

In increasing numbers, corporate leaders have begun to utilise the power of visuality as a viable and unique framework for seeing the whole value stream and connecting it. At once practical and visionary, an integrative awareness of visuality as an improvement technology turns visual point solutions into myriad vehicles of the corporate intent. Visuality becomes a powerful and equal partner with lean, six sigma, TPM, and other prime improvement initiatives – even as it also provides the very ground in which these systems reside. A system of systems, visuality imbeds the dynamic language of operational excellence into the physical work environment.

This encompassing understanding recasts our thinking about the visual workplace. Borders, for example, the so-called “lines on the floor.”  While the un-informed may view these as mere place holders for the things that populate the production floor, we know them as crucial enablers of the visual where, the imbedded answer to a question in the non-visual workplace that is so dominant in its absence as to be a de-stabiliser of profit. Hidden in plain sight, borders (such as you see in Figures 1A and 1B) lay down the pattern of work and connect up the disparate elements of the value stream into a single highly visual, performance logic.

Figure 3: This comprehensive performance display is the core communication centre at this fast-moving print enterprise, with data changing in real time throughout the day. Besides representing the daily (even hourly) health of the plan, satellite boards populated the production floor and link a spectrum of departments in the same data chain. Given the option, this company wisely refused to trade these live manual boards in for LCD monitors, realising that software-based displays reduce authentic connectivity and the context of meaning.

Figure 3: This comprehensive performance display is the core communication centre at this fast-moving print enterprise, with data changing in real time throughout the day. Besides representing the daily (even hourly) health of the plan, satellite boards populated the production floor and link a spectrum of departments in the same data chain. Given the option, this company wisely refused to trade these live manual boards in for LCD monitors, realising that software-based displays reduce authentic connectivity and the context of meaning.

Production boards, as another example, do not simply capture scheduling data (see Figure 3). Created with an integrative mindset and the need-to-know as their beating heart, displays (as I call them) exhibit a remarkable capacity to talk to each other across departmental boundaries, sharing data needs and requirements that make production constraints and opportunities crystal clear to their human tenders.

Why do we ask so little of our visual language? It is made to serve our crucial day-to-day demands – but it is also capable of assisting us much more completely and profitably, frequently in ways we can only see as we use it.

But since visuality is a language, better get the terminology right or you risk shrinking the astonishing breadth of its scope to connect, reveal, and drive. The term visual management, for example, refers to only a narrow spectrum of visual function, the one that provides managers with a line of sight through such mechanisms as scheduling and output boards, dashboards, metrics that monitor (KPIs), and other two-dimensional, data-based formats. In short, visual management delivers the data that every good boss requires to know and decide… to manage. But it is a misnomer and a large mistake when that term is used to describe the comprehensive visual functionality needed to embed end-to-end connectivity. That limited view consigns visuality to “telling” and “showing” only and ignores its power to embed and drive exact performance outcomes.

By definition, kanban connects material and its movement throughout the enterprise. What is exceptional about the logic you see in Figures 4 A/B/C is the simplicity of traffic‐lit pull in governing all material flow across a 2,000-people site in Mexico. Everyone understands this approach because it is at once highly visual, attractive, simple, and effective—a common visual pull system across all valuestreams, end‐to‐end.

By definition, kanban connects material and its movement throughout the enterprise. What is exceptional about the logic you see in Figures 4 A/B/C is the simplicity of traffic‐lit pull in governing all material flow across a 2,000-people site in Mexico. Everyone understands this approach because it is at once highly visual, attractive, simple, and effective—a common visual pull system across all value streams, end‐to‐end.

Hidden in plain sight, more opportunities to link and connect up the value stream, end-to-end, reside in the visuality of your measurement approach, a true executive function. Measures are tangibly visible by nature and therefore inherently better than finger counting. KPIs are not going and should not go away. Use them to monitor because you must; but the potential of measures to contribute to the corporate good lies beneath and above the way they are currently used. In their latent dimension, these visual metrics segment the data, illuminate cause, and drive us down the causal chain where real-time solutions to our most chronic and entrenched problems await. Hidden in plain sight, nothing impels KPI improvement more quickly and ineluctably than visual metrics deployed enterprise-wide. Nothing better connects up the message of profit, but only when used knowingly.

A larger understanding results in a wide and deeper deployment and the demand that visual devices serve in a more subtle and complete way. When we see – and deploy – visuality as a language which all levels of the organisation (not just management) uses, we trigger a subtle yet profound shift in the enterprise that begins the transition from hierarchical/vertical silos to fluid, horizontal function that integrates and elevates: the outcome is unity. Hidden in plain sight, visuality is a means for creating and deploying the end-to-end connectivity that the new horizontal enterprise envisions and requires.