Lean Manufacturing

Visual Management and Glass Walls

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

Transparency is a key word these days, especially when it comes to the mishandling of vast sums of other people’s money by smart people who already have lots of it and should know better. Governments, institutional investors, corporate boards, I’m looking at you. Perhaps someday we will think back on these days as the sunset of the era when we put our money in fuzzy things called social insurance or individual retirement accounts, instruments which like a black box flight recorder we couldn’t really look inside until it was pulled out of the flaming wreckage.

Luckily in some areas we have woken up from the state blissful trust in non-transparent processes. In the more down-to-earth business of making things, whether these things are food, durable goods, people healthy, or code, we increasingly demand to understand not only what goes in the process and what comes out, but what’s happening in the process itself. Lean practices built on visual management and problem solving are increasingly taking root in manufacturing, healthcare, and the public sector processes, but still not enough at the level of the most critical level of making decisions.

One of the clients with whom I have had the pleasure of working for over a decade started out as a typical small factory filled with walls dividing office from office, office from factory, one factory area from other areas. Naturally, this also divided people. Special systems and processes were required to bring people together at specified times for specific purposes. These events were called meetings.

None of these walls were transparent, none of them helped make problems visible or to solve them. Each time my friend Jeff knocked down one of them, the biggest question was “What took you so long?” Now Jeff and his management team sits in a ring of desks in the middle of the shop floor.

At the local and personal level, we know very well that looking someone in the eye is the best, if not the only way, to know what they are really thinking. Humans process 85% of sensory information through vision, the other 15% through touch, smell, taste, hearing. For dogs, smell plays the dominant role in their senses. In the parallel universe where dogs are people, this article is all about olfactory management and odorant-permeable walls. But I digress. We know that seeing is believing, yet we are comfortable erecting walls between ourselves and the truth, whether it be the facts on the gemba or the questionable purposes to which our trusted political leaders and financial advisors are putting our money. What odd behavior. Would a blood hound follow a trail of quarry it couldn’t smell?

In the bookstore in Milan, pictured above, the mechanics of the escalator are exposed through glass walls. This creates an attractive visual effect when combined with the weathered brick of the building which was centuries old. Many lean thinking organizations replace opaque equipment covers, doors and walls with glass (or plexi glass) to make the condition of the working interior visible. Others do it to make the workspace appear more modern, save on construction materials or lighting cost. Whatever the reasons, glass walls are a trend to encourage. The more we do, the sooner this idea of visual management and glass walls will make the leap to financial and ethical governance issues.

Was there ever a financial crisis whose approach, in hindsight, was not signaled like the roar and shake of a freight train? Was there ever an armed conflict which on reflection, could have gone much better for all involved or been totally avoided with some extended time spent talking, eating, laughing eye-to-eye with the adversary? Was there ever a badly managed shop floor whose solution wasn’t obvious to the trained eye of a lean practitioner? History is a humanity’s glass wall.

The truth, as they say, will out. Problems hidden rarely get better on their own. Answers to problems are like plant life; to grow they need sunlight, air, dirt and water. Visual management of the issues provides the light and air. The dirt comes from our hands and our shoes which we get dirty lending a hand as we clear away the wreckage. The water – be sure to bring your own, it’s thirsty work.

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    November 9, 2011 - 1:02 am

    When I was at Chrysler, the Chrysler Technology Center was built more like a mall, with large open spaces and long glass walls. The layout allowed true improved communication as you could see where people where and just go to see them.
    Transparency is key both literally and figuratively, especially in the evolution of further and further distribution of decision making.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. Vernon V Tabb

    November 20, 2011 - 4:53 pm

    I retired from an employer where there were a lot of structural walls. I understand that at least some of those have come down. But, possibly even more important is the other impediment, namely human walls. Many people believe that they can do it alone or that if they go to others then the others will get the credit for any success that results. This employer also had no trust in their lower level staff and prevented them from seeing through a glass wall that exists with many entities, namely the internet and/or the intranet. Let people do research, let them network, and listen to what they learn. Yes, and monitor those who abuse the opportunity. I am now looking for a job with a company where management and labor work together and are willing to learn from each other the better ways (kaizen).

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