The Lean Office Blog

Visual Management – Side Effects May Vary

Today’s post focuses on some side effects that may (definitely will) occur when implementing visual management, and suggestions for handling them. This is the fifth in a series of posts about visual management; check here for more posts on the topic. 

“I think (technology has) brought the world a lot closer together, and will continue to do that. There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything. The most corrosive piece of technology that I’ve ever seen is called television — but then, again, television, at its best, is magnificent. -Steve Jobs in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview

We’ve dedicated a few posts to the hard and soft benefits of visual management, specifically digital applications. Today, we’ll turn our attention to identifying some unintended consequences that arise when you begin capturing and displaying performance information.

Side Effect #1:  Metrics Whac-a-Mole

Previously, we agreed that visual management is about displaying the status of a system. Most of the time, that system has many interconnected parts, and fixing one part will have a different, often adverse impact on another part of the system. The good news is, you’ve had success dealing with your largest problem/focus area. The bad news is, you’ve created another problem for your team and/or customer. Imagine a never-ending game of metrics whac-a-mole, where once you pound one metric into place, other metrics start performing poorly.visual management whac a mole

Examples of this abound:

  • If inventory reduction is your focus metric, your team may do such a good job reducing inventory that you fall below safety stock levels and begin negatively impacting the customer fulfillment metric
  • If lead time reduction is your focus metric, your team may push the boundaries on quality by rushing a process step or safety by cutting corners on safety procedures

Solution:  First, ask the question, “If this metric improves, what other areas will be impacted?” If possible, talk to the direct customers of your process (internal or external) to understand what they care about, and check in regularly to confirm your overall output is improving. Next, put boundaries around your team’s improvement ideas-take things like breaking safety procedures off the table of possible solutions. Finally, instead of establishing an aggressive target, pursue less aggressive short-term targets that allow you to observe the impact on other metrics as your focus metric improves.

Side Effect #2:  Surveillance Room Management

Have you ever had a scenario where the data and metrics didn’t reflect reality? I always think about the security guards in the casino in the movie Oceans 11. They sat in comfy chairs in the surveillance office watching what they thought was a live feed (but was actually a pre-recorded video) of the vault, while the vault was emptied. Many times, a process appears to be performing well based on available information, but a first-hand view of the situation tells a very different story. The most dangerous assumption a Lean manager can make is that if the data looks good, the process must also look good, and the people must be happy.

President Reagan was fond of using the Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” when describing his relations with the former Soviet Union. This principle applies just as much for Lean managers in today’s world. The application of this concept at Toyota is called Genchi Genbutsu-go to where the work is actually being done (gemba), and confirm.  See below for a quote about Kiichiro Toyoda, the Toyota executive who decided the company should expand into automobile production:

One of Kiichiro’s favorite phrases was “An engineer who does not have to wash his hands at least three times a day is not a good engineer.” He frequently visited the plants and if he spotted a young engineer, he would ask him to put out his hands to check whether the engineer’s hands were dirty or not. In handling things at worksites, a person’s hands get oily. Even washing one’s hands with soap will not remove all the oil. Streaks of black always remain. Kiichiro encouraged engineers whose hands were not streaked with black by asking them “How can you expect to do your job without getting your hands dirty!” Kiichiro himself thus always passed on to others the importance of the Genchi Genbutsu principle and of thinking things through.

-Toyota 2009 Annual Report

This concept applies even more for Lean managers and process owners than engineers, as time at the gemba allows them to connect with and coach team members. It also applies more in computer-based workplaces, where “getting your hands dirty” means actually sitting with your team at her/his desk and getting first-hand knowledge of the process and problems.

Solution:  The easy answer here is, “go to the gemba.”  This can be easier said than done, especially if you have a tempting excuse for staying at your desk in the form of informative visuals.  A few tips:

  • Set alarms on your phone to remind you throughout the day to get your hands dirtyvisual management genchi genbutsu
  • Take the long way back to your desk from meetings, the coffee machine, etc. and check in on your team
  • Be intentional – most folks live by the calendar, so block off time in your calendar to dedicate to spending time with your team
  • Make a commitment – declare your intention to the team, and give your team members permission to hold you accountable if they aren’t seeing enough of you

If you are managing folks who need motivation to get out to the gemba, and are instead relying on informative visuals, a few additional tactics work. First, set the example by spending significant time where the work is being done. There’s no better teaching method than demonstrating the right behavior. Second, hold them accountable just as Kiichiro Toyoda illustrated above.  Most times, processes aren’t followed because of a lack of discipline.  It is your job to build that process discipline into your team-after all, if the supervisors can’t maintain their leader standard work, how can you expect the same out of the team members actually doing the work?

The point of visual management isn’t to replace the need for visiting the gemba.  The point is to free up time by providing immediate system status, so your trips become more meaningful and impactful.

Side Effect #3:  Job (In)security

Last, but definitely not least, is the unintended negative cultural impact of displaying visuals within a workplace.  While there are several cultural benefits to displaying the information, there is a high likelihood that at least a few members of the team will come to view the visuals as a direct reflection on not only their performance, but also their value to the team and company.  While a subset of your team will view visual displays as yet another attractive way to measure themselves against the competition (be it co-workers, another team, or simply the target condition), others will see it as only a stress-inducer that “calls them out” for poor performance.

This is where it becomes critical to separate the process from the people working on the process. Employees that are nervous about failing aren’t going to try new things or point out problems, and both of these are critical to improving any process.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”

-Henry Ford

Solution:  It is important to create a safe environment for your employees to try and fail. Celebrate effort when failure happens, and continually refer to the visuals as a reflection of the process performance. If you are a manager, and your company’s overall culture is highly competitive and rewards only immediate success, it is your job to protect your team from that outside pressure. Especially early in the process, over-communicate what the visuals are intended to do, so those unrelated to the work don’t contribute to feelings of insecurity on your team. Hide individual names from displays, and foster teamwork and collaboration over competition whenever possible.

The key moments for negating this consequence occur immediately following failure.  While you may have given “process vs. people” plenty of lip service during the roll-out of the visuals, every eye will be on the manager the moment an issue is uncovered.  How you react the first several times this happens will go a long way to determining if your team trusts you and engages in improvement, or huddles in the shelter of problem denial.


In summary, these consequences may not be preventable, but by knowing about them, you can contain their impact on your team and the process. Pay attention to how other metrics are reacting to changes in your pilot metric, spend time with your team by observing the process in person, and don’t forget to celebrate improvement activities.

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!

2 Comments

  1. Gerhard W. Kessler

    Good points
    can I use and translate some parts to german ? Sure mentioneing the Author

    1. Randy Siever

      Sure thing, Gerhard! Thanks for reading the blog.

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