Scenes From The Visual Factory

I believe that for today's factories to be efficient, they need to be highly visual. Wherever possible, photos, drawings, color-codes and even cartoons should replace text.

I believe that for today's factories to be efficient, they need to be highly visual. Wherever possible, photos, drawings, color-codes and even cartoons should replace text. The objective of the "visual factory" is to communicate important information in the most easily understood manner possible. Many factories share my belief in the need for visual communication, which becomes even more critical in multicultural, multilingual workplaces. Here are some things that companies are doing to "get visual."

Control those tools. One of the most popular forms of visual management is tool control. Many companies are installing shadow boards, or boards marked with the shapes of tools, to indicate proper tool locations. The shadow board visually conveys two pieces of information: where the tool belongs and whether the tool is missing from its designated location. This "at-a-glance" visual indicator can be a real time saver, as it eliminates the need to spend time searching through tool boxes, tool drawers or cabinets to find a tool. Posting the shadow board in plain sight of all who use the tools provides immediate feedback as to the status of the tool. Some companies have taken the shadow board concept a step further by introducing color-coding. The shadow boards themselves are painted a certain color, then the tools that belong on those boards have a matching color applied (usually either with paint or durable tape). Typically, each workcenter is assigned a dedicated color for the shadow board and the tools. One area may have blue color-coded tools, another red color-coded tools and yet another black color-coded tools. In such a system, it is easy to see if a tool is in the wrong location because a black tool on a red tool board stands out.

What (and how much) to produce. Production scheduling can be simplified through the use of visual indicators. Instead of reams of paperwork dictating production schedules, companies are using easy-to-grasp signs to trigger production processes. A scheduling board, or production trigger board, is a good example of a visual indicator. Such boards can work in a number of ways, but perhaps the simplest is a series of blocks that are covered as a product is consumed. When the covered blocks reach a certain height, operators are authorized to produce more parts. In the example shown in Figure 1 below, the "X" designates consumption of a container of parts. The red boxes indicate the reorder point or the trigger to reorder more containers of parts.

We notice that only part number C113 has reached the red zone or reorder point. Therefore, that part needs to be run. The quantity of containers to be produced equals the sum of all of the X's that appear on the chart, or in this case, five (four in the yellow boxes plus one in the red box). According to this production trigger board, it would not be necessary to produce any other parts at this time. All required information about what and how many to produce can be obtained by looking at this chart.

Where to put materials. Visual indicators can also help us determine where to put materials and supplies. Many companies designate floor areas as incoming material staging areas. Such areas are either painted, or outlined with tape, and clearly designated "incoming material only." This approach can also regulate the amount of incoming material that will be accepted in an area; if it won't fit in the designated area, it cannot be brought in. Some companies go a step further by color-coding sections of warehouses according to the type of material to be stored. For example, green racks may indicate the storage of stainless steel, and orange racks may indicate the storage of brass. Likewise, labels and color can be used to designate the proper storage location of chemicals and supplies. Even the disposition of trash recyclable products and scrap material can be improved through the use of a consistently applied, plant-wide color scheme.

Consider the use of visual indicators in your plant. Lines, labels, signs and color codes will help people better understand what is going on. Also, with the growing use of digital photography and the advantages it offers, you may actually be able to use a picture to replace a thousand words.