Top 8 Reasons Teams Abandon Their Visuals

By Jon Miller Updated on March 7th, 2022

Reader Dan made a great suggestion in a comment to a recent article on using artifacts to make thinking visible, “Next you might delve into why visuals are sometimes abandoned by teams.”

Abandoned visual controls, outdated metrics boards, and faded location markings are common sights at various points on an organization’s lean journey. Ironically, when we see the “wallpaper” of abandoned visuals, this in itself is a visual control, or a sign of a failure to achieve or sustain operational excellence.

How to Think About Abandoned Visuals

We don’t need to feel bad if we fail to keep all of our visuals perfectly updated 100% of the time. We all have a lot going on, and sometimes these things can slip. We can update it next week, and things will be just fine. The 5S was a bit sloppy last shift, but they had rush orders to meet. Some days, there more important things to attend to than visuals. Right?

How should we think about abandoned visuals in our workplace? Do we insist on rigor or cut people slack? This is a tricky area because while we want to “go hard on the process, easy on people,” the failure to maintain visual process standards is about as “people” an issue as you can get. Doing our best to take a process perspective on this issue, here are the top eight reasons teams abandon their visuals.

1-Metrics aren’t meaningful to the team

If people don’t see the point of the visuals, they’re unlikely to maintain them. People will protect what they value, and what they had some part in building. When setting up 5S rules for a workplace, there is value to making the workplace clean. A lack of spills, obstacles, and clutter improves safety. When the visual organization discipline places the things we need to do our job within easy reach, we’re more likely to keep things in that condition. Although signage and visual KPIs are more abstract than the 5S of tools and materials, the principle is the same. When selecting KPIs for a visual board there should be a variety of metrics, some that matter most to, and are selected by, the team maintaining the visuals.

2-Leaders walk by outdated visuals

Without pointing a finger of blame, we can still assign responsibility to leadership. Presumably, it was leadership who required that teams create, use, and maintain visuals in order to better their workplace. If so, why aren’t leaders noticing outdated or abandoned visuals, asking why, and helping teams reverse course? Another common reason is that leaders are walking through the gemba, rather than walking with a purpose to check how things are going. They may be walking through without observing.

Even leaders on structured gemba walks may still walk by abandoned visuals. They can’t tell “what good is supposed to look like” on a particular visual. They may be afraid to ask, and look ignorant. Often, leaders may not understand the “why” of a particular visual. On the one hand, they may grasp that the team’s KPIs link to their own management priorities. On the other hand, they may be blind to the use of certain colors or shapes in securing in-process quality and safety.

3-Maintaining the visuals is difficult

Even the best-designed, most meaningful, and relevant metrics won’t survive if their upkeep takes too much time. There’s no single solution to this issue. Sometimes analog is best, sometimes digital solutions are better. Sometimes it’s ideal to have the team maintain their own visuals, other times it’s impractical. The point is to be pragmatic and not dogmatic when it comes to maintaining the visuals. Start with, “What makes this hard to maintain?” and “How can we make it easier?”

4-Visuals don’t support good habits and routines

When the visual controls are on an island, so to speak, rather than an integrated part of a daily management system, they are more likely to be abandoned. It’s not unusual for a leader to visit an excellent company, see the visuals, and think, “I want that.” However, copying just the visuals, or the most superficial layer of a system, rarely succeeds. If we have visual metrics, we need to review them daily as a team. If we institute 5S, we need to audit and improve workplace organization. If we’re using visual pull signals, we’d better start by reducing WIP and address its causes, etc.

5-Visuals don’t tell a story

I’ve noticed that the best visuals tell a compelling story. There is a through line from top management to the team. The customer, the process, and team members are connected. Problem-solving is logical, based on delving into data, but also relevant to how it affects people. Monitoring daily performance doesn’t feel like policing, it feels like teams are telling their story each day.

This gets back to points #1 and #2. If the visuals aren’t used to have a conversation between the team performing the work and those supporting them, visuals aren’t going to survive. What’s supposed to happen? What actually happened? How come? What do we need to do about it? Every visual should contribute to this story in some way.

6-Visuals don’t elicit an emotional response

A red status on a visual control should elicit a response. A pallet straddling an aisle marking, a shadow board with missing tools at the end of the shift, or a stack of WIP above the kanban limit should make us a little sick to the stomach. Half of this is setting ambiguous visual controls so that “bad” jumps out to us. The other half is being consistent in our use of, and reaction to seeing, that color or visual abnormality indicator.

7-Visuals get people in, rather than out, of trouble

Building on #6, we need to be careful not to build the emotion of fear, dread, or anxiety into our visual controls. Much of this is in how leaders respond when the visuals we use expose problems. “Thank you for exposing the problem,” is a sentence that leaders should practice and perfect before mandating teams create, use, and maintain visuals. Another important part of this is to educate people in using both leading and lagging indicators only. When we only use lagging, or rear-view mirror indicators, it’s harder to have data-driven conversations about “Why did we miss our target last month?” When we have leading, or windshield indicators, we can see what’s happening in our process right now, and take action to correct course.

8-Visuals lack personality

Boring visuals may get abandoned, but are cheery, fun ones better? I visited dozens of excellent companies in Japan during many benchmarking visits, learning from their journeys. The effective use of visuals was always an area of emphasis. One different that is impossible to ignore is their use of cartoons, cute mascots, and other types of frivolous visual flair. It can even look childish, non-serious. Mickey Mouse, so to speak.

Why is a cartoon character reminding me that quality is important to the customer, or that spills kill fish? Part of this may be the national culture. Anime is a vast and deep form of artistic expression, storytelling, and culture-building in Japan. Animated characters are practically real people. The inclusion of cartoon people was a way to make it fun, appealing, and familiar, so people will take ownership of the message. The solution isn’t to draw cartoons, but to figure out how to reflect the local, regional, or national personality in the visuals.

A Quick Guide to Preventing Abandoned Visuals

Preventing the abandonment of visuals is more than a matter of exhorting people to put effort into their upkeep. If the visuals are unusually hard to maintain, it’s due to physical and or psychological reasons. Figure out which, and correct this. Better yet, set yourself up for success by designing visuals people will care about and want to maintain. Beyond the aesthetic appeal, we identified guidelines in our module on selecting meaningful metrics as part of a  daily accountability process.

Visual metrics should be few, but we should also have a balanced variety of them. It’s essential that metrics be customer-centric but also process-focused. This gets to the point of the need for visual metrics to be local but also linked to organizational targets. These things require that we have both leading and lagging indicators, so that we’re able to take action today to influence outcomes tomorrow. Last but not least, visual controls of all types need to be easy to create, understand, use, and maintain. This may seem like a lot to consider for making what are supposed to be simple, analog, visual aids. However, simplicity often requires preparation, thought, and revision to achieve.

What are other reasons you’ve noticed that teams abandon their visuals?

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