One of the unexpected pleasures of business travel over the years has been stumbling across well-intentioned but poorly executed visual controls. As a result I’ve written more than twenty posts based on “ambiguous visual controls” since 2008. There have been fewer recently due to less travel. Those observations can be found here on the Gemba Panta Rei blog. I find a kind of find humor in many of these bad visual controls. But making problems, abnormalities and deviations from standards easily seen by anyone is serious business.
Ron Pereira sent me this delightful example of an ineffective visual control. On a desk in a reception area there is a thermos, a jacket and a sign that says “Do not put anything on this reception desk!!” Well, that’s a recipe for failure from the start. Perhaps we would expect most people to understand that a sign placed on the table saying “do not place anything on this table” does not apply to the sign itself. But that’s the thing about visual controls – if there is any ambiguity or doubt as to their meaning or validity, they tend not to do their job. People don’t need much reason to ignore instructions, especially when it’s easier or more convenient to do so.
How could this visual control be improved to better prevent people placing items on the reception desk? First, the visual itself is not so visual. There are eight words of text on a white background. Nothing about the design appeals to the eye or catches our attention. That could be improved with color and design. The visual control implies, but does not clearly reference a standard, such as a clean and clear desk. In fact the visual control does the opposite by violating its own standard, sitting on the desk. There is no reason given why the desk must be kept clear. The best visual controls don’t require explanation. Studies of human psychology have shown that people are more likely to comply to requests when a reason is given, as in “Please don’t place items on this desk because that gives a poor impression to customers.” Lastly, for visuals like this one which are seemingly trivial and harmless for people to violate, adding a human element such as a smiling photo of the person who needs the reception desk kept clean, helps motivate the right behavior.
Here is a better example of a visual control from a local supermarket. It guides customers in the cafeteria area on how to dispose of waste items. It clearly shows standard for which items go in which bin. Words are few. Color coding is used. The actual items which fit into the categories of clean recyclables, landfill and food + compostable are displayed in a glass case above the trash bins. The problem condition is defined as deviating from that standard – the bin should not contain anything that does not match the category of displayed items. The need to sort trash and minimize landfill is well-established and understood in the community, so in this case no additional “because” explanation is needed for this visual control to do its job.
The next time you find that one of your visual controls isn’t doing its job, look at it from the point of view of the person whose behavior you are trying to change.