Creative Ways to Make Things Easier

“Visuals” not only help eliminate waste, but can also have additional positive impact on a company’s operations.

We know lean is all about continuous improvement through the elimination of waste. Most of us have also learned that a good way to eliminate waste of all types is to make procedures and processes “visual.” Visuals not only help us eliminate waste, but can usually make operations easier as well.

This month, I will describe some clever visuals I have seen firsthand. Each approach has had a positive impact on the companies that have put them to use.

Color-coded walkways. Not exactly a new or revolutionary idea, but one that has really improved safety is the use of color-coded designations for walkways or aisles. Pedestrians and motorized vehicles do not mix well in manufacturing or warehousing operations, and need to be kept as far apart from each other as possible. Many companies paint aisles to clearly designate where people should and should not walk. Multiple colors can be employed for different purposes. For example, one color can be used on walkways for visitors and another on those for employees. Different-color walkways are visually instructive and, in most cases, reduce the likelihood of an accident or near-miss occurring.

Moveable location indicators. Taped or painted outlines are the norm for showing where items should be kept. Unfortunately, tape is not always durable and paint is not very flexible. Sometimes location indicators must be changed based on the specific operation being performed or product being run. For example, the locations for incoming or outgoing material may need to change based on the size of the product or the quantity being produced. One way to accommodate this is with rubber mats that are easily moved. Such mats can either be painted completely or with an outline in whatever color is used to identify item locations. If the color starts to wear, touch-up is far easier on a mat than on a floor.

Color-coded brooms and other cleaning supplies. I don’t know why it is, but just as certain automobiles are magnets for car thieves, it seems that brooms are a magnet for cleaning-supply thieves. Of course, I am kidding, but I do frequently hear that brooms “disappear,” often permanently. In reality, they most likely are taken, used and just not returned to their proper location. To combat this, paint a broom’s handle or base, or both with a distinctive color that ties that broom to a specific work area. The brighter (and perhaps even uglier) the color, the better. The broom storage device (board, clip, cabinet, etc.) can be painted the same color to provide a matching visual. Doing this with brooms and other cleaning supplies can reduce the likelihood of such items being “stolen.” By the way, this same concept is ideal for those hand tools that often go missing.

Foam cutouts. It can be very frustrating to open a drawer and find a bunch of comingled, unorganized tools. Eventually, we may find the tool we are looking for, but time is wasted conducting the search. A foam drawer lining with cutouts in the shape of the tools to be stored there not only gives each tool an easy-to-see home, but can constrain (and even protect) tools when drawers are opened and closed (the most common cause for tool comingling). In cases where tools are very close in size or shape, a small label describing the tool and placed under it in the cutout can provide a further visual of what should be stored where.

Photos, photos, photos. Although an overused cliché, it is absolutely true that a picture is worth a thousand words. We should try to employ photographs to describe desired conditions or outcomes whenever we can. In order to assure one company’s conference room remains clean and organized, a photo of the way the conference room is supposed to look is placed above the room’s light switch next to the door. Anyone leaving the room cannot help but notice this photo and immediately understands that returning the room to this condition is expected of anyone using the room. In work areas where personal protective equipment (PPE) is required, full-size photos of properly prepared employees, along with a mirror posted at each entrance, deliver a quick reminder of appropriate dress to everyone entering these work areas. Finally, a photo of a properly organized supply cabinet mounted on the inside of one of the cabinet doors makes it clear how the cabinet should look whenever supplies are added or removed.

The fun part about using visuals to eliminate waste in an operation is the creativity that can result from such an effort. Challenge some of your employees or co-workers to come up with clever ideas for making things visual and, ultimately, easier for everyone.