The Lean Office Blog

Tips for Visual Management in the Office

Today’s post provides tips for implementing visual management in office and service environments.

At the start of every year, I like to do my part to help level-load the demand of local businesses. The business I’m most concerned about as “eat healthy” resolutions come into style are donut shops – who is going to keep donut shops operating when everyone is eating kale and broccoli? I was visiting my local donut shop last week, and discovered something very applicable to today’s topic: visual management. My donut shop displays all of the donuts on easy-to-see trays, making it easier for customers to quickly view all options as well as see how many of each type of donut is available. While this is great for the customer, I also realized this is excellent for the employees at the shop. It is very easy for them to quickly understand at a glance which donuts need to be made or taken off the menu. Being a Lean nerd, my donut shop experience got me thinking about my own experience, and how often I struggle to get a true picture of my own work.

In a manufacturing environment, it is very easy to see which areas of the operation are keeping up, and which are falling behind – just look for the office inboxinventory! Are there large amounts of inventory stacked up behind a work area, or people standing around waiting for inventory to be able to work? If so, there’s an opportunity for improvement. In an office setting, visual management has actually taken a step backwards with the introduction of computers, software, and email. 20 years ago, it was common to see comics depicting the “inbox” on someone’s desk overflowing with work. Much like the inventory stacked up behind a work area, that stack of papers was a good indication of an opportunity for improvement. Now that we’ve gone paperless and work is done virtually in an office, we’ve lost even that obvious indicator of a problem. So how can we make our office work more visual? Keep reading for several tips I’ve learned along the way around visual management in the office.

1. Email Rules

If you’re anything like me, you view the “unread” emails in your inbox as an indicator of how much work Inbox Unreadyou have to do. While I rarely get my unread number to 0, I do start and end each day with a pretty good idea of where I’m at in terms of my backlog. If the count of unread emails is an important metric for you, and something that you view frequently throughout the day, it is important that the number is meaningful. One of the biggest differences between the paper inbox and the email inbox is the amount of junk or unnecessary items that end up in your inbox. This is where email rules provide an enormous service.

Email rules are a tool for automating the sorting and management of your inbox, and Outlook and Gmail have lots of similar options. The most valuable rule for me is the “mark as read” option. If I receive emails that I would like to keep for future reference, but don’t require me to do any actual work in the present, I’ll create a rule (based on subject, sender, or specific contents) that marks the message as “read”. This way, the message is still available for me to view and reference later, but my count of unread emails remains the same. There are a ton of other benefits to using email rules, but managing the count of unread messages is really helpful for visual management.

2. Conditional Formatting

If you spend most of your day in front of a computer, chances are you’ve seen an Excel spreadsheet. While I’m definitely a data person, I also like the idea of using tools that help me see the data in new and different ways. I like charts best, but many times the data doesn’t lend itself to a chart, or you still need to reference the numbers themselves instead of flipping back and forth between tabs in the file. In these cases, I use a tool called “Conditional Formatting”. Excel has the most versatile options for conditional formatting, but Google Sheets is catching up. Below I’ve provided a very brief illustration for the difference between looking at just the data, and looking at the data with conditional formatting applied:

Conditional Formatting

While both of these examples show the same data, one is presented with more information. By using conditional formatting, it is easy to quickly see that Fridays and Mondays are typically lower (orange/red) days of the week, and Thursdays are typically higher (green). Conditional formatting allows you to provide a very clear picture of the data at a glance, and also provides quick feedback. For instance, if you added a new row for week 13, and entered a figure for Monday, the cell would immediately provide you detail around what the number represents – is it low, high, or average? There are a lot of applications for conditional formatting, many of which make it easier to “see” your work.

3. Real-Time Information

One of the most impactful examples of the power of visual management came for me visual management benefitswhen I was on a team trying to improve our response time on issues handling. We used to review metrics on a daily basis on a KPI board at the front of the office, and the response time issue was a focal point for the team. We realized after looking at the daily figure for several days that we weren’t really improving on the metric, and we weren’t really sure why. We decided to add a graphic to our office visual that displayed our performance on the wall in real-time, and the impact was felt that same day. A few observations:

  • We started noticing trends that repeated every day. For instance, the mornings were always quiet, and then lots of issues came up as people headed for lunch. This meant that we were getting the most demand at the time when we were lowest on resources. Also, we could plan out the rest of our work during the low-demand hours and then really focus on response time during the peaks.
  • We also started to truly “see” the impact of our work throughout the day. When an issue was resolved, and it disappeared from the board, everyone felt a sense of accomplishment.
  • From a team perspective, it was now possible to see the current status at a glance. Instead of waiting for someone to ask for help, we set up automatic signals that went off when certain thresholds were crossed.

All of these observations were because the work was being measured and visualized in real-time, instead of captured in a daily metric.

I’m convinced one of the biggest roadblocks to implementing Lean principles in an office is actually “seeing” the work. Hopefully with these tips, you can start seeing the work in your own office. Now, it’s your turn. What other tips have you learned for applying visual management in the office? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help organizations implement Lean principles in their operations. Click here to find out more!

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