The Visual Workplace: Translating Vital Information into Exact Behavior

July 20, 2009
Knowing how to get questions answered before they are asked is the key to eliminating wasteful motion.

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. [pullquote]

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?

Also apply borders for everything that casts a shadow on work surfaces, shelves, racks, and inside cabinets. Make your addresses speak, providing the telling detail that keeps mix-ups to a minimum. That’s what you see here with this HazMat cabinet. Would this work for some of the addresses in your area as well?

The Visual What. What exactly are we supposed to be making next? The specs? The quantities? Do we know precisely? Or do we have to guess and take the chance of producing something wrong? Let’s put a visual device—a three-ring binder with photos and charts is a good example—in place to make sure that does not happen.

The Visual When. The term when in this core question refers to two types of time. First, it means the exact time something needs to or will be done, such as “when will this order be completed?” or “when does this order need to be shipped?” Second, the “when” refers to the duration of time—the time required, for example, for a heat cycle.

Every morning, Nate, an engineer, hovered around Camilla, the area’s only support person, as she prepared the daily report. Nate wanted to now as soon as the report was ready so he could get to his own work. Camilla decided to translate the missing answer to the when question (When will the report be ready?) into a visual device. Camilla clipped a red clothes pin on the blue bin when the report was ready. Nate took the clothes pin off when he picked up the report so Camilla would know that he got it. Perfect visual communication. Is there someone in your department that could benefit from this kind of visual device?

The Visual Who. The Visual Who is about agents and agency—in other words, about what helps you do your work. Think of the dozens (if not hundreds) of other people who contribute some part of their work every day to make sure your work happens. Name them visually so you can either get back to them for clarification, trace the status of material, find a needed tool, update them on changes, or simply say thank you.

When you consider the Visual Who, also include the tools and machines that act as agents or helpers in the work for which you are responsible. No doubt you can think of dozens of visual applications. Here’s a favorite.

Cindy Barter at United Electric Controls (Watertown, MA) developed this splendid double-sided airborne address that provided much more than her name in defining the visual who. The additional detail means that her customers (other employees in the company) will know, instantly, whether she is or is not the right person to help on a supplier question about a given set of materials. Cindy helps us further by visually providing her buyer number (6), her phone extension (207), and even her back up in case she’s not available (Jon Birkett). 

The Visual How Many. Hands-on counting and measuring are only one way to determine the number, size, volume or quantity of things, or simply the required setting. Yet there are other ways—visual ways—that are easier, more reliable, accurate and effective, and do not rely on judgment or chance.

When we target a visual response to the fifth Core Question (How Many/How Much/To What Extent), we build the right answer into the physical workplace—so it resides there permanently for us to use as reference when and as we need it.

We have already mentioned how important borders are for establishing and maintaining Visual Order (5S). They are also powerful when used as a visual control, as you see here. A visual control limits our behavior through structure, size, and number. The borders in this control system enable us to count the number of units that are stored in this corner of the production floor: one high x three deep x five across—room for 15 units only!

The Visual How. Reliable standards are the bedrock of all work. Our last core question “How” is simply your standard operating procedures (SOPs) made visual.

A word of warning: Only new employees need a Visual Standard for every operation, every SOP. Once you understand the fundamentals, then use Visual Standards for focus—to remind yourself and others of the details you may (or could) forget or have forgotten. The key here is focus: focus your visual standards on specific challenges. The right use of Visual Standards can help us remember the tricky bits. Every single tiny little thing is overkill and will reduce the effectiveness of this useful visual tool.

Visual Standards (the Visual How) are the least powerful of all visual devices—because they tell only—they have no power to make us do anything. But when used to provide specific assistance, they can be very effective, especially when the person who needs the information can simply pull it into place. This visual standard shows the right and wrong way to tape an electrical wiring harness.

Words of Advice

As you begin to make the Six Core Questions visual in your company, here are four things to keep in mind.

1.  Be patient. Let the creativity grow. Study the devices people come up with across departments. If you are implementing correctly, you will see a lot of different ideas about capturing this information visually. Some of them will be very innovative, even unique. Encourage this by walking around at least once a week and looking at people’s new ideas. Take photographs—of the device and also of the person who created it—and show them to others.

2. Postpone standardization. Do not try to standardize on new devices too soon. Focus on inspiration, not duplication. Let the creativity run. Let people continue to experiment and develop new ways of capturing visual answers. Give it 6-8 months, then think about capturing the current Visual Best Practices, always announcing, when you do, that each such practice simply represents the current base line. Encourage people to feel free to take those further.

3. Expect a slow start. No matter how enthusiastic you and others are about visuality, do not get discouraged if people stat slowly and/or if the first crop of visual answers look pretty ordinary. If visuality has never been implemented in your company before, people may be reluctant to take chances and get creative. They may prefer to hang back for a while, waiting to see if management is going to support them. When they see otherwise, they will begin to come out, day by day. Have faith in the process.

4. Get educated. Workplace visuality is a rich field of study with its own set of principles, concepts, tools, methods, and applications. Learn more about it. Read a book on visuality. Start a book study group with your peers. Visit a nearby company that is becoming visual. Attend a visual workplace seminar and/or webinar. Increase your knowledge and knowhow—both are needed for a successful visual transformation.

And in all of that, I wish you well.

About The Author. 

Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Ph.D., is founder/president of Quality Methods International and the Visual-Lean® Institute (QMI). She has over 25 years in the field of workplace visuality as an educator, implementer, researcher, and recognized visual workplace expert. With clients around the world, QMI offers training of in-house and external trainers, licenses, complete off-the-shelf training products in more than a dozen visual workplace methods. Dr. Galsworth is author of many books, including Visual Systems, the Visual Order Handbook, Smart Simple Design, and the prize-winning Visual Workplace/Visual Thinking. Her new book, Work That Makes Sense, will be out in the fall.  For more, visit

About the Author

Gwendolyn Galsworth | President