Continuous Improvement Storyboards

By Jon Miller Updated on October 3rd, 2021

Lean management has a positive bias for making things visible. This ranges from large and abstract things like performance, progress toward strategic goals, and problem-solving projects down to smaller concrete things like the correct amount of stock on a shelf or placement of tools. Effective visual management highlights abnormality or potential problems.

Another more basic goal of visualization is to remove ambiguity. At a process level, this helps to build in quality and safety by defining the standard. At the human level, it reduces the mental fatigue of needing to search, select, interpret, and decide. Combined, this makes it easier to do good work. As firms recognize the value role of team-based daily management and problem solving, we’re seeing the use of storyboards to support continuous improvement in the workplace.

What Is a Storyboard?

A storyboard is a tool to organize a set of images, graphics, or illustrations in a specific sequence. The purpose is to visualize the main scenes of a story to understand how it all flows together. The Disney company is credited with inventing this approach for planning animation stories in the 1930s. Today storyboards are common in film, theater, interactive media, and other business planning applications.

In television or film production, a storyboard is used to imagine how the story will go together once the footage is shot and edited. In the context of continuous improvement and problem solving, it’s less of a look-ahead and more of a look back. Once completed, storyboards offer a record of what happened. But they are also much more of a working document of what’s happening. In the former case, the film director may have a vision in their mind that they are trying to achieve. In the case of problem solving storyboards, more often we don’t know the solution.

The Kata Storyboard

This idea of a storyboard as the visualization of the process of experimentation is embodied in the kata storyboard. Today one of the most popular types is the storyboard in continuous improvement circles. A learner works with a coach to tackle a challenge. This requires running through a series of small experiments over a course of several months. The learner reviews these daily with their coach. The storyboard helps to make the learner’s thought process visible to the coach, allowing for feedback and guidance. The kata storyboard is interesting in that it’s a mirror into a specific learner’s mind with regards to how they think and solve problems.

TPM Activity Board

The TPM activity board is another popular type of continuous improvement storyboard. These are often focused on a specific loss reduction theme such as startup yield, breakdowns, changeovers, or idling. These storyboards are also used to visually organize how a team implements their autonomous maintenance routines or adopts other TPM practices. These are often specific to a machine, series of connected machines, or a team working to improve the performance of assets in their area. TPM activity boards are also used at the plant level or company level to plan and monitor the rollout of total productive maintenance activities overall. Unlike the kata storyboard which is one per individual, TPM storyboards are nearly always team-based.

The Strategy Deployment Storyboard

When organizations practice hoshin planning, they often dedicate a meeting room, such as an obeya, to visualize their years-long effort. Displayed across several walls are the planning documents, market assumptions, customer survey results, annual targets, bowling charts of monthly progress, x-matrices of initiatives by organization level, A3 documents for proposals or problem solving, and so forth. The leadership team literally walks through their plan, checks its status, and engages in course correction or problem-solving discussion. It’s often a lot of information to put on a wall and keep up-to-date. However, requiring them to take ownership in manually updating the status, highlighting issues, and presenting their part of the story helps to ensure that issues aren’t hidden, and that the senior team continues to learn.

The Business Model Canvas

Although it differs in significant ways from the examples above, we can say that the Business Model Canvas is also a storyboard. This visual tool aims to develop new or redesign existing business models by telling the story of how a firm delivers value in the form of goods and services to its customers. Insofar as a well-written business plan is a story of how an organization intends to profit by serving customers, the Business Model Canvas is a storyboard to visualize and test its underlying assumptions.

Creating and Collaborating Via Storyboards

The QC Storyboard is the granddaddy of them all. This format is the main visual problem-solving format of Quality Circles and was popular in the heyday of TQM some decades ago. In similar fashion to both kata and TPM, Quality Circles tend to take on challenges requiring a few months of continuous effort. The popularity and promise of rapid results from kaizen events, with their Friday presentations of results on a flip chart, PowerPoint slides, or OHPs (look it up, kids), displaced continuous improvement storyboards in the workplace.

As leadership changes happen, as they inevitably will over the long course of an organization’s continuous improvement journey, they often want new wallpaper to announce their arrival. The old storyboards that serve as reminders of the previous regime and its failings are taken down, to be replaced by rebranded CI boards or none at all. This is often well-intentioned, based on experience and belief that their approach will be better than the one that came before. A new leader has the right to tell their version of the story. But it’s a pity when this erodes constancy of purpose, reinforcing the “program of the month” impression.

Hopefully, we are entering a new glorious era in the use of storyboards for continuous improvement. Storyboards are a good reminder that as our world becomes more technology-driven, it’s often tools and practices with analog roots that power our creativity, collaboration, and problem solving.

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