A“Visual Workplace” Can Improve Your Productivity

Over the years, I have found visual signals to be an effective means of communicating in a plant environment. Unfortunately, many companies complicate communication with detailed instructions that consist mostly of written words.

Columns From: 1/5/2002 Modern Machine Shop,

Over the years, I have found visual signals to be an effective means of communicating in a plant environment. Unfortunately, many companies complicate communication with detailed instructions that consist mostly of written words. Although we have all heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we do not necessarily take advantage of the power of pictures and other visual signals in the workplace. If we did, we would encounter fewer misunderstandings and discover a workplace that is easier to manage.

There are many types of visual signals. Whichever type you choose, consider the following suggestions:

Make the signal obvious and easy to see from a distance. When it comes to visual signals, the larger and brighter the better. Employees should not have to walk up to the signal in order to understand it.
Ensure that information is on or near the item to which it relates. To avoid confusion, ask yourself if the message is really located properly.
Make the signal clear to anyone. Regardless of a person’s language, a visual signal is just that—a key to get something accomplished. Avoid words, if possible, and replace them with pictures, charts, cartoons or whatever it takes to convey the message to anyone. The ideal signal will automatically spark some type of action.
Nothing has to be permanent—if it doesn’t work well, change it later. The point here is to try something. Things do not have to be permanently marked. Changes can be made based on worker feedback.
One of the simplest and yet most effective types of visual signals is the shadow board. This device is well named, as it uses the shadow of a particular item to indicate where that item should go. Just as important, the shadow clearly indicates when the item is not there. Many of us have used the shadow board concept at home, perhaps in our garages or basement workshops. The outline of a hammer on a pegboard, for example, is a visual signal indicating where that hammer belongs. Some companies are avid about the use of shadow boards and make it part of the daily cleanup procedure to ensure that all tools are properly located on these boards.

The use of color is another effective visual signal that communicates important information quickly. OSHA has defined safety color codes, such as yellow for caution, red for fire protection equipment and emergency stop controls, orange for machine danger points, green for safety equipment and blue for equipment being worked on. Another example of the use of color is in the identification of raw material barstock. Colors on the end of the barstock indicate material type. At a glance, employees can determine if the color-coded materials have been mixed. Color can also be effective in grouping tools together. Certain size punches and dies can be color coded to ensure that they stay together. Color coding is also helpful in handling components for different types of products. One company that makes pumps uses blue totes to hold all components for one type of pump, red to hold components for another type and yellow to hold the components for a third type of pump. Even the pump names have adopted unofficial titles that include the color designations.

Visual signals can be used to communicate inventory replenishment information. For example, sheet stock can be stored next to a wall with lines drawn on it to represent minimum and maxium quantities. When the quantity of sheets reaches the level of the lowest line, material is reordered. The higher line represents the maximum stacking height line, assuring sheets are kept at or below this level. This is a simple yet effective means for managing the storage of sheet stock.

Lines marked on a floor or worktable are effective signals for indicating areas where items should be stored. The floor lines generally indicate inventory storage locations, while lines on a table indicate areas where tools, supplies or fixtures are stored. Lines on the floor are also helpful in indicating where doors swing open. Again, a visual signal like this will tell workers that nothing should be placed in an area that can interfere with the path of a door.

Think of some visual signals you can use in your plant to easily communicate information to the workforce. Make them simple enough for anyone to understand, regardless of language barriers.

Visual signals are an effective way to communicate. The simpler the signal, the less chance for misunderstanding, which is a leading cause of production problems.

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