Focus on the Visual

Even if your shop hasn’t fully embraced lean manufacturing, you can still benefit by establishing a visual workplace.

Columns From: 3/13/2012 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Derek Korn

Genesis Attachments is a Midwest producer of excavator attachments that has adopted a lean manufacturing mindset. In doing so, it has made strides to establish a visual workplace to streamline communication throughout its organization. Giving employees easy access to essential information where it’s needed eliminates wasteful downtime caused by searching for needed information or waiting for assistance. It also eliminates surprises because employees know not only what is expected of them, but what they can expect in terms of upcoming tasks and responsibilities.

The value of Genesis’ visual workplace was demonstrated immediately after I arrived to gather background for this story. As I entered the building, numerous department managers were in a central office area for a daily five-minute production meeting. The purpose of these brief morning meetings is to get everyone up to speed on the status of various projects and to discuss any issues that may impact production. The large site board in that office enables managers to see up-to-date information related to safety, quality, delivery, inventory and other matters covered in these meetings. The board also lists non-time-sensitive projects to be pursued whenever equipment becomes available. This important visual tool was among the first lean-manufacturing measures implemented by Genesis when it started its lean journey seven years ago.

Genesis uses a variety of other visual tools to simplify communication, too. This includes current- and future-state value stream maps identifying where value is (or isn’t) being added to production processes; color-coded charts showing production schedules for various projects; “team improvement” boards in each department used to display vital information specific to a particular area; and day-by-hour boards near machine tools that let operators know what jobs are in the queue. Genesis also practices 5S workplace organization, which applies a variety of visual techniques to maintain an organized facility. (In fact, making things visible is part of almost every 5S-related activity.)

Because Genesis designs and makes its own products, its approach to lean manufacturing differs from how job shops implement lean. However, both types of businesses can benefit from implementing lean visual communication practices. I’ve visited some shops that have done this using simple means (such as dry erase boards showing job schedules) while others have applied more sophisticated measures (such as 50-inch touchscreen monitors in cells offering access to job setup photos and videos). That said, the mechanism for presenting information to employees is less important than realizing what information the employee needs to effectively perform his or her duties and providing it where and when it’s needed. So carefully consider some visual signals you can use to communicate information to your workforce. A bit of effort in this respect will ensure that vital information continually flows between management and employees, as well as between individuals and departments.

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