Visual control: An organized workplace has messy drawers



MORE often related to 5S good housekeeping, the term “visual control” is used in many inflated ways when we talk about quality and productivity improvement. I mean “inflated” but also “strategic” when a janitor assumes the title of “facilities manager,” a quality inspector the title of “director for total quality,” a bartender that of “restaurant manager” and a secretary for “human resource manager.”

Recently, however, this picture has resurfaced to describe the situation of many managers who have betrayed and discredited themselves through their amateurish work behavior. Even more damaging is in their noticeable decline for their lack in aptitude in good governance, which is more pronounced in small businesses.

Kevin is a typical example. He is a production manager of one small factory in Bulacan. Judging from his factory, you can easily tell that he’s not the right party to talk to when it comes to effective and efficient management. He’s the same person that I could imagine during his student days would often be berated by his mother:

“Look at your room!” she yelled. “It’s a disaster! The bed isn’t made, there’s a stack of papers over there, and a pile of dirty clothes over here. I should be charging you P10,000 a month for ruining your room.”

“What? Are you kidding?” Kevin replied, “For this kind of pigsty?” And yet he has the gall to complain and ignore resources that are abundant and good advice like that coming from his own mother, but only if he cares to look outside of the walls of his sweatshop.

For one, the government, through the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Wages for Productivity Commission, among others, offer free assistance on how to do the basic 5S good housekeeping and many related programs.

For the private sector, one active, major advocate is the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines Institute for Productivity and Competitiveness Foundation (EIPCF) that gives free program on 5S and plant layout under its “Big Enterprise, Small Enterprise” model. (Disclaimer: this columnist is a founding governor of EIPCF which was established in 2003).

Visual control is one imperative in lean leadership thinking. Without it, it can be difficult to keep track of what is going on in a factory like that of Kevin’s with people appearing busy and yet you wonder why they appear overly occupied while ignoring visual problems around them. With visual control, a factory (or even a service area or administrative office) is set up in such a way that confusion is removed from the system.

In a factory or office with visual control, it is easy to tell if people are working normally or having problems.

A quick visual scan reveals the presence of bottlenecks or excess capacity. In addition to these, visual control requires management to establish and use live and updated information boards to keep all the workers informed of the status, problems, quality issue, and so on.

Each product work cell may have one or more boards, perhaps on an inexpensive easel paper to a sophisticated computer monitor, on which management may post accurate information. For example, if the day’s schedule requires a team to produce 1,000 units of a certain product, the workers and its management will have the chance to assess at any given time, if they can achieve that target.

Jeffrey Liker and David Meier, co-authors of The Toyota Way Fieldbook (2006), prescribe the use of visual control “so no problems are hidden.” Go to any Toyota factory and even in “service parts warehouses with hundreds of thousands of parts being moved about, physical visual aids abound. There are signs and labels everyplace in a Toyota environment. Why?”

It’s easy to understand this “because people are visual creatures. They need to be able to look at their work, look at the parts rack, look at the supermarket of parts, and easily see whether they are in a standard condition or a deviation from the standard.”

My spouse, Bonnie, knows the importance of visual control so much so that she applies it in helping our adopted kids on how to take good care of their books for the new school year. The point is that Bonnie is a great tutor to our kids—all nephews and nieces who would normally come to our house to enjoy our benevolence.

The bigger point is that we have happy big problems doing this in the same manner that we also have a proud tradition of righting wrongs, expressed in the same old situation like—if the kids tell us that they lost their books under the pretext of avoiding doing their homework, the sooner that they can imagine, they will have to write 500 times the following sentence: “I promise not to lose my books, because education is very important” in three Crayola colors—red, green and blue.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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