The Lean Office Blog

Can My Visual Management Really be on a Screen? A Debate

Today’s post compares the benefits and drawbacks of using analog and digital technologies for visual management.

As described in a previous post, the main purpose of visual management is, “the status of the system can be understood at a glance by everyone involved.” This can take on many forms within a manufacturing or office environment, including 5S, kanban boards, control charts, and metrics displays, among many others. For this post, we’ll focus on things providing either a real-time visual of current status, or a historic view of performance. Experts ranging from the Lean Enterprise Institute to the Kaizen Institute have weighed in on the topic, and the verdict looks pretty bleak for folks favoring a digital solution. A few things that the “analog”/paper-version approach has over digital technology:

  • Customization-at some point, what you want to measure will change. Updating the layout of a corkboard or magnets is considerably easier than adjusting web code
  • Simpler=better-why complicate matters? Simpler things are easier to learn and understand, and require less process knowledge to adjust later
  • Reviewing requires action-whether the displays are in a “war room” or located at the gemba (the place where the work is done), updating and reviewing the latest visuals requires physical action. There are tons of reasons why visiting the gemba should be encouraged, including better employee engagement, better management understanding of what’s actually happening, and more opportunities for coaching and feedback. Also, physical updates of a metric require someone to have researched the metric in order to update the chart

These are some pretty compelling reasons why using the analog approach is preferred to digital for companies creating a Lean Management System. Depending on your organization, these could already be digital deal-breakers.  However, there are advantages to using digital technology, as well:visual_management_locations

  • Multi-site visibility-by the definition we used earlier, visual management should be “understood at a glance by everyone involved.” What happens when some of those involved in the process work in another part of the building, another building, or even another province or country? Visibility across multiple locations is considerably easier using technology, and can reduce either wasted knowledge or wasted effort in getting updated information
  • Computer-based processes-some work is computer-based by its very nature. Service-oriented businesses and manufacturing support functions often find team members spending a majority of the day interacting with computers. There are inherent benefits in placing visual management solutions within the very tools these team members are using. This also makes it easier to…
  • Real-time data-one of the largest benefits of digital technology. The moment you record something on paper, it is out of date. While this isn’t a considerable issue for daily metrics, it can be devastating to not have visibility throughout the day. Answer this question-if you are responsible for hitting a daily production goal, would you rather know that a delay occurred one hour into the shift at the time of the delay, or the following morning?
  • Reduced admin time-the time spent either adding steps to an existing process for status displays, or gathering and displaying dashboard data at the end of a shift can be greatly reduced by setting up  digital collection processes
  • Impartial, proactive alerts-while computers have many drawbacks, one major advantage is their cold ability to calculate and impartially observe, regardless of circumstances. Whether it’s a loading dock displaying what time the truck leaves, a deadline for a report to be sent, or an hourly confirmation of plan vs. actual, computers don’t forget to perform a status check and display the results. One common error within analog visuals we’ve seen many times is team members forgetting/being too busy to update status, with the result being delayed (by several hours) reaction to critical information and missing/incorrect data based on estimates versus actuals

A quick look at the above lists of advantages will tell you a few things about this debate-there are plenty of advantages for digital solutions, but the fundamental advantages of analog are difficult to overcome.  The good news is, you don’t have to choose analog or digital!  Rather than viewing this as an either/or scenario, what if we looked at digital solutions as the next evolution of visual management tools?  Rather than placing yourself firmly on one side or the other, what if you recognized the benefits of each, and used them based on a specific situation?  Analog v DigitalThe goal isn’t to remove the need to visit the gemba, but to enhance those trips by empowering managers with more information. Next time, we’ll dig more deeply into the general benefits of visual management, and expand on a few items covered today. Have anything to add on this topic?  We’d love to hear it!  Continue the dialog in the comments section below.

The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help Lean organizations  who have moved beyond tools and events, and are implementing their own Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!

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