A board displays the photographs of a facility

Create Workplace Structure with Visual Signals and Signs

Visually presenting who we are can inspire new ideas, benchmarking, and team collaboration.

Are you on a lean journey? Have you been successful in achieving improvements? Have the results been sustainable? Is the majority of your team engaged in problem solving? These are most likely the questions you often ask yourself if you are on a lean journey. The challenge that most companies face on this journey is cultivating employees to search for waste and providing them with the tools to remove waste.

In order to identify and eliminate waste, we must build processes that expose waste and develop people who are willing and able to eliminate waste. If we want our team to be successful, we need them to be able to find problems and make improvements. In order for this to happen, we must provide them with the tools to do so. The tool that can create this is Visual Management, which uses displays, visual controls, signs, scoreboards, and signals to communicate in real time, allowing problems to be identified. Once problems have been identified, it is up to people to resolve them.

Establishing Visual Management as the core foundation of problem solving will assist in uncovering waste. In order to successfully implement Visual Management, you must execute three fundamental elements: Workplace Structure, Process Control, and Employee Engagement. These Visual Management principles bring discipline to your problem-solving process and also instill a culture of employee engagement. This methodology begins with Workplace Structure, which refers to the arrangement of the physical environment and the way we want to work. We must have consensus for how we want to work, not only by standardizing the process of work, but also by standardizing the way in which our workplace is organized and how we communicate the standards. Creating workplace structure requires a high level of agreement and a respect for the people that do the work. Without agreement, you can’t expect to create Workplace Structure.

The first component of Workplace Structure is navigation. Navigation in our workplace refers to direction and location. We begin by focusing on identifying problems within the structure of our workplace. First step is to evaluate in small increments the wasted motion and excessive transportation in the workplace. When we look specifically at these wastes, we identify opportunities for improvement. (It can be helpful to bring in a new set of eyes and get an objective view.) We often become immune to the inefficiencies in our workplace because we see them day after day, week after week; it’s almost as if the inefficiency becomes the standard of work. To start, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to identify wasted motion and transportation:

  • Can new employees navigate our facility without asking questions?
  • Do our team members understand at a glance the flow of material?
  • Are abnormalities visible at a glance?

When you think about navigation, think about GPS. Traveling, we rely on visual information to efficiently navigate from point A to point B. If we are not efficient, we waste time and money. We should want the same for our workplaces. Navigation provides direction and instructions so that we can find our way. It gives us warnings to keep us safe. It directs behavior when no one is around.

How do you create navigation in your workplace? Think of an airport: Rarely do you have to ask a question to find your way in an airport. There are many ways to create visual navigation. Signage, lighting, labels, and floor markings can offer many solutions. You can use symbols, shapes, and colors to increase the effectiveness of your message. It’s important that you create a standard for the entire organization. If different methods and language are used, you will lose credibility and be right back where you started.

Next, we want to talk about presence. In a visual workplace, this defines who we are and what we do. It is more than just a display of the products we sell our customers. Defining our presence will help to ascertain a culture of continuous improvement. It is with this foundation that we will make improvements every day. We will see problems and want to solve them--without thinking twice. Creating a presence is an investment in communication, not only for employees, but for all of the stakeholders in our business: customers, suppliers, shareholders, and the community.

Defining presence starts with a collaboration of cross-functional team members. Every functional area within your organization should have a visual focal point that summarizes the team, improvement activities, goals, and performance. This focal point can be a very useful tool for directing huddle meetings.

What can you display to create your presence?

  • Are you involved in any community events?
  • What is your safety performance?
  • Has your team created any cost savings?
  • What are the corporate initiatives for this fiscal year?
  • Have you received any awards or recognition?
  • What are your performance standards?
  • Who is on your team?
  • What are your quarterly goals?
  • Who are your customers, and what products and services do you provide?
  • What are the values and mission of the organization?

These questions should be continually asked throughout the organization. The challenge is making the answers visible. Visually presenting who we are can inspire new ideas, benchmarking, and team collaboration.

The last element of Workplace Structure is organization. Our goal with Workplace Structure is to create a workplace that speaks for itself. Questions are immediately answered by visual displays, not people. We do not search for information, tools, or material. Non-value-added items are eliminated because what is supposed to happen does without fail. How do you achieve this utopia? Many organizations use a 5S methodology to create sustainable, organized work areas. These work areas are not only located where we produce the products we sell to our customers, but they also include accounting departments, mail rooms, break areas, inspection and testing, maintenance, warehousing, and much more.

Using 5S Methodology
Many different translations and adaptations of the traditional 5S methodology have evolved during the past 30 years. These variations seem to have evolved as a result of differences among and fluctuating needs of organizations. Organizations frequently struggle to sustain improvements due to a lack of engagement and the difficulty of measuring to a standard that was not clearly defined. When done properly, organizing the workplace removes any ambiguity. It is either where it is supposed to be, or it is not.

The following is another variation to the 5S methodology that has proven successful in creating team engagement and supports a sustainable, structured, and organized workplace. This methodology focuses on teaching others to see problems before they try to fix them, setting a standard, and focusing on identifying the normal from the abnormal. Once you have agreed on the standard, your task is to strive every day to maintain the standard until a new standard is agreed upon.

See the process.
In order to create structure, you must first see that the there is a problem with the current condition. This is not always obvious. Start by bringing in others who are not familiar with the area. Can they determine what the organization’s standards are without asking questions? Look for missing information. We can learn by example; what we see is not always what others see.

Sort to begin to expose a waste in the process.
Now that we have demonstrated how to see the process, our next step is to sort out all of the items in our workplace that do not contribute to our work. If you have items in your workplace that are not used or have not been touched, except to move them out of the way in the past 30 days, chances are they are not necessary parts of our job. If there is an item that is needed only occasionally, look for possibilities to store it offline in a manner that makes it easy to retrieve. Be sure to share your non-value-added treasures with others. You might be able to re-purpose an item without disposing of it.

Simplify to begin to define abnormal conditions.
Create a place for everything and put everything in its place. Visual displays, signals, and signage are the critical components to organizing your workplace. The goal is to create a workplace that directs behavior and answers the questions without speaking. We want our communication to be centered on improvement, not about where to find something.

Shine to make the workplace cleaner, safer, and more productive.
A respect for people starts with a clean and safe workplace. By setting standards and devoting time to concentrate on cleanliness and safety, team members will take pride in their workplace and look for opportunities to make improvements.

Standardize organization and the way we work.
As you step through this framework, workplace structure will become very prevalent. A high level of agreement among those who do the work is required to effectively sustain the standards. Improvement won’t happen if we first do not set the standard. Standards should be reviewed at regular intervals. If the standards are not changing, you are not improving.

Standards are the baseline for all improvement. In order to achieve measurable, sustainable improvements, you must have a starting point. Workplace Structure entails that you communicate visually, not verbally. How is this done? You must give your team not only the ownership to make improvements, but standard tools to create this structured, visual workplace. Creatively using directional signage, floor graphics, symbols, photographs, dry erase boards, and work instructions will bring a visual workplace to life. There are many inexpensive, flexible systems available that will allow your team to make their visuals as they need them. It is not necessary to purchase your signage and visual displays from an outside source. Doing it yourself makes setting and sustaining standards more attainable while reducing costs.

Creating workplace structure is the first element of a successful Visual Management strategy. It begins by establishing standards for navigation and the physical arrangement of the workplace. The next step is to define our presence: who we are and what we do. The standards for the structure of the workplace are complete by organizing the workplace that speaks for itself. You must first establish agreement and discipline to sustain a structured workplace before you begin to evaluate your process and demonstrate problem-solving techniques. If you give ownership of Workplace Structure to your team, they will be motivated to look for problems and be inspired to want to solve problems.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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