OpEx 101: One Visual Management Icon is Worth a Thousand Texts


I’ve got a job for you. Drive my car from Key West, Florida, to Portland, Oregon. You must:

  1. Do this work as fast as possible
  2. Don’t waste time
  3. Stay safe
  4. Don’t break any laws

By the way, my car doesn’t have a dashboard; only a steering wheel, gas and brake peddles, a clutch, and manual shift. Good Luck.

Oh, wait! I forgot to tell you.

The roads you must take have no signs, no direction arrows, and no traffic lights. There are no directional lanes outlined, and none of the other cars on the road have break-lights. You get no navigation help other than I told you where to go; how you get there is up to you. If necessary, I’ll give you a quick tutorial on how to drive my car, but then you are on your own.

Does this sound like fun?  Sure, it does. And I’ll bet, if asked, you would do your best to perform this work. What if you were paid to do this activity every day?  After a few trips, I’ll bet you would optimize your process. Soon, you would be able to explain to me (or anyone) how you do the work, perfectly.


The Importance of Visual Management

This is what happens in our business processes when we design our work areas without Visual Management. Our employees develop into process experts. When we have more than one employee doing the same work, each will define their own methods for getting it done.


Running a process—new or old—is not stable or efficient when we allow the process to evolve on its own.


The comparison to driving and traffic signs often used when describing the benefits of Visual Management; there’s a good reason why. For many people driving to and from work is the easiest parts of their day. Have you ever asked yourself, why? I contend that the only time driving becomes difficult is when some anomaly comes along; a process blip, or an interruption in the normal traffic.

We usually don’t pay much attention to the Visual Management tools being employed in our daily commute until we encounter a process shift. This is the most valuable reason to employ Visual Management as a part of lean. Let’s design our work processes in a way that provides direction and reaction for when the process requires our extra attention. Visual Management  icons and signs provide us a way to depict the standard normal conditions, as well as means for what to do, (i.e., reactions to a condition), when something happens.


Where is Visual Management

Visual Management is everywhere, including restaurants, schools, shopping malls, and highways. We also see Visual Management used in movie theatres, gas stations, and airports.

So do we need Visual Management in our work places? Only if we want things to be easy.

Embedded in work processes two ways, as visual controls and as visual standards, clear visible signs and indicators are the difference between making work easy or keeping work difficult to manage. I view controls differently to standards. In simplest form, a visual standard is a guideline, a visual control provides process status. Rather than words, pictures and icons provide a universal language.


Visual Controls

Dashboards, scoreboards, stop signs, traffic and status lights are Visual Management tools that help control the process. Visual controls provide specific process management indications of status.

Examples of Controls:

  • Colored Lights – a stacked combination of lights; typically, red indicates the process is stopped, yellow indicates there is an issue, green indicates all is good.
  • Process Status Board – production throughput, quality status, units per hour, etc.

Visual Standards

Lines, labels, direction arrows, and color codes perimeters around process boundaries are forms of visual standards. Visual standards provide a visual representation of the correct way to do something, or the correct placement of process elements.


Examples of Standards

  • Road signs and traffic lane lines
  • Posted standard work procedures (with icons)
  • Workplace layout and flow directions, and 5S requirements

Simple employment of Visual Management begins with 5S and process layout. Is everything needed for the job available, and is everything is its place?  Further process enhancement through visual indicators of process standards creates a sense of control over the process.

As an exercise, go to your Gemba and, without speaking to the process workers or supervisors, try to answer the following questions:


  • Are the process (machines) operating at standard speed?
  • Can you see by looking if there are any safety issues or hazards to be concerned about?
  • What is the current level of customer service for the process?
  • Does the process have the proper raw material running?
  • Is there enough material available for the next few hours?
  • How many people are working in this area right now?
  • Are the people doing the work following the standard process steps right now?
  • What is the current level of quality for the parts coming off the line?  What should it be?
  • What is the current productivity level right now? What should it be?
  • Are there any processing issues right now?  Can you tell by just looking?
  • How long has this machine been running and how many more hours does this job have left?
  • When is the next changeover?

If the questions are difficult or impossible to answer without talking to someone in the process, then Visual Management will increase you understanding and help manage the process.


The value of Visual Management is straight forward. When employed properly Visual Management eliminates shutdowns, speeds up waiting, and reduces rework. Using signage and icons increases process understanding. In our world, as in our processes, not everyone speaks the same language or has the same level of process knowledge as the next person. Visual Management helps everyone gain a clear level understanding as to what the expectations are. What’s that old saying …?  One icon is worth a thousand words, or something like that.

About the author

Brian Wilkins

Brian brings 15 years of sales and account management experience serving C-suite executives at Fortune 1000 organizations.