Sarah Lethbridge, Lean Services Manager at Cardiff Business School, comments on Gwendolyn Galsworth’s article “Hidden in plain sight”, published in the July/August issue of LMJ.

When I first started learning about lean, I had no idea about the huge importance that “visuality” has in an organisation on the journey. I learned about kanban or “visual cards”; andon lamps as a device for raising an alarm in response to quality problems; and policy deployment matrices as a tool to balance and prioritise improvements. I was, however, largely oblivious to the underlying connectivity that visuality has within all of these tools.

The more you understand and experience lean, the more you can detect and determine visuality as a recurring, underlying theme – as important a core concept as the PDCA cycle.

Consequently, visual management has been a key research interest of mine and I have really enjoyed researching the subject with Nicola Bateman, an expert in this field, at Loughborough University. So it was with great interest that I both read Gwendolyn’s article and attended a day long workshop that she ran at the recent Lean Conference at the University of Buckingham.

Firstly, I really liked how Gwendolyn talked about the “living landscape of the work” and the analogies that she made to the organisation as a holistic organism full of interconnecting systems. I think it’s really important to see businesses in this way. They are alive, and as such, are subject to entropy – “The inexorable tendency of the universe, and any isolated system in it, to slide to a state of increasing disorder.”

I think that’s what lean is actually about: limiting the effect of entropy within the organisational system and encouraging a state of continuous improvement. I believe, with Gwendolyn, that visuality is a language, a key enabler within a lean implementation to help employees to “do the right thing” and to assist processes to continually improve.

In her article published in the latest issue of Lean Management Journal, she poses the question “Why do we ask so little of our visual language?” and then discusses the important role that the selection of terminology has to play in helping people to harness the benefits of visuality. I welcomed her challenge of the use of the term “visual management” to describe the power of visuality within a lean enterprise.

I spend a lot of my time talking about the need for managers to not simply “manage” the status quo, but to lead, nurture, develop and inspire. So I accept that the use of the word “management”, when coupled with “visual”, somewhat suggests a state of stasis, and doesn’t convey how dynamic and flexible great visual techniques can be.  It will be very difficult for me to try to “change my ways” and start to embrace the use of the term “visuality” or “workplace visuality.” Even while writing this article, I have gone back and replaced “visual management” with “visuality” many times.

To more directly answer Gwendolyn’s question, however, I feel that more discussion needs to take place about how to help people to learn this new language. When I wanted to learn French, I needed to attend classes over several months and years, hang out with French people and travel regularly to France. So, to learn the language of visuality takes a great deal of study, discussions, visits, and most importantly, time.

Extending the analogy further, more experienced lean thinkers need to realise that handing over a team information board complete with seven columns of analysis relating to quality, cost, delivery etc. could be likened to handing me and my limited French skills an original copy of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovery!

The language of visual management… ahem, I’ve done it again… visuality is perhaps, in some ways, a more difficult language to learn, because it’s difficult to detect and discern. As I previously admitted, I failed to appreciate its significance as I saw the lean tools as distinct entities and devices, and neglected to understand that they were actually all about making communication in work, visual. In helping people to learn this language, courses need to be developed which build people’s skills over time, that don’t simply jump to visuality fluency, but help people to build a basic set of understandable terms of devices upon which they can then slowly increase their visual conversational skills.

I also think that we have to take into account the fact that people are built differently, and that some people have a natural propensity to what is visual more than others. Some of the really interesting recent developments in lean have looked at the importance of brain chemistry in order to explain lean transformations. For example, Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata methodology is based on the development of neural pathways that are predisposed to conducting the scientific method. Perhaps more research is needed into the effect lean has on left brain/right brain thinking? If the right side of the brain possesses the power of expression and creativity, colour and images, then perhaps people with a propensity towards visuality are more right-brain thinkers? And yet, the left side of the brain, which looks after logic and analytical thinking, is obviously necessary in order to develop a structured lean approach. It would be interesting to explore the brains of fantastic visual thinkers, like Dr Gwendolyn Galsworth, to determine whether she is more of a right-brain thinker… it would also be fascinating to see whether a person, through the practice of lean, might migrate from one neurological state to another.

It certainly feels like the longer you experience lean, the more the way you look at the world changes. It becomes a world where the physicality of space has a huge effect on the effectiveness of the activities within it. So I wonder whether my neural pathways have been changed and which parts of my brain have become stronger as I experienced more lean. Whatever my brain looks like, I know that I’m keen to learn more about the immense usefulness of increased visuality from people like Gwendolyn.