The Visual Workplace: Translating Vital Information into Exact Behavior

Knowing how to get questions answered before they are asked is the key to eliminating wasteful motion.

By Gwendolyn Galsworth, President, QMI/Visual-Lean Institute

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People don’t come to Toyota to work. They come to think. –Taiichi Ohno

Visual devices are everywhere, helping us to do the right thing quickly, precisely, on time, and safely. These devices do their job so seamlessly, are so much a part of our world, that we barely notice how they influence, direct or even control our behavior. We simply obey.

Look around you. See that road sign telling you where to turn for Highway 84-West? That’s a visual device. See that blue line on the wall at the hospital? Follow it and you will arrive at the x-ray department.

Think about how these devices help us do the right thing precisely, quickly and safely—or how they keep us from doing the wrong thing (in many cases, that is just as important).

The Translation of Information

At its most fundamental, visuality is about this: Translating vital information into exact behavior. This translation is accomplished through visual devices. The device is the translation point. Without it, we are forced to rely on word-of mouth, memory, supervisors, reports, emails, reminders, inspection, double-check inspections, and so on and on—all of which multiply the likelihood of error, risk and or cost, often exponentially.

Visual devices build reliable behavior in because the information is in a usable and immediate form:

  • What behavior? Exact, correct, work-critical behavior.
  • Whose behavior? Yours, mine, and everyone else’s. No one is excluded.

The upshot of all this is: the visual workplace is a gigantic adherence mechanism—a macro as well as a micro management system that drives, ensures, supports, and sustains performance excellence.

What happens in the absence of visual devices? Deficits in information have a vast and disastrous impact on all performance parameters—from quality metrics such as defect and scrap rate, to machine repair and changeover times, to inspection and material handling costs, to accidents and safety-related issues, to cycle time and overall operational lead time. That means that information deficits, by extension, impact the entire business cycle, including sales forecasts and collection activities.

Most of the time, these deficits are so chronic and commonplace, the depth to which they affect organizational performance is nearly impossible to determine. To find them, we must look for their symptom—that which they trigger: Motion.

Motion: Corporate Enemy #1

Motion is defined as moving without working. Look at the forms of motion in the box. They are so commonplace, so ordinary, so frequently done—but they are not work. In fact, motion is anything you have to do or else you could not do your work.

Questions are the virus of motion. They spread to everyone, everywhere and look “normal”. They look unavoidable. In some organizations, they even look like friends.

Questions rob us of our time, our confidence, and our work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Questions rob us of our time, our confidence, and our work. Plus they have a peculiar multiplier effect. You interrupt someone to ask a question and the two of you are automatically in motion. If he/she happens not to know the answer, another person will get interrupted for the answer. Now three of you are in motion. And if that other person also does not know . . . well, you get the picture. Pretty soon the entire department has motion sickness—all in the name of helping you!

You don’t need to feel guilty about this but you do need to change it—by turning questions into visual answers.

The Six Core Questions

A visual workplace makes answers readily and visually available to anyone who needs them at anytime, as close to the point of use as possible. Answers to what? Answers to the Six Core Questions, one of the building blocks of workplace visuality.




Who (or what machine or tool)?

How many (or how long)?


When the answers are missing to some or all of these core questions, the workplace is starved for information —and quality, lead time, safety, and costs are the first casualties.

We’ll use the Six Core Questions to show you how to make their answers visual—up and down the stream of value that defines your work and everyone else’s.

If you learn no other visual concept than the six core questions, you could go far in populating the company with visual answers and move closer to achieving a well-functioning visual workplace. They are that powerful.

The Six Core Questions Made Visual

Here is an example of each of the six core questions made visual.

The Visual Where. At the very top of the value stream, long before you even begin work, you are faced with the first vital question: Where? Where are my gloves? Where’s my work order? Where’s my supervisor? Where are the chemicals I need for this order?  Here are two visual devices that imbed the Visual Where.

The Visual Where starts from the floor up—with borders for everything that casts a shadow. Floor borders are the single most important visual device for establishing and maintaining order—we call it Visual Order (5S). Why? Because floor borders capture the pattern of work—and the mind is a pattern-seeking mechanism. But borders are incomplete without home addresses. Do all your floor borders have clear addresses? Are those addresses specific enough to prevent mistakes?

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