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The factory speaks to us, and too often its message indicates mutual mistrust, one-way communication, and a lack of regard for the intellectual potential of plant personnel. The visual factory is such that communication is in the sight of the beholder. At United Electric, it was only after years of continuous improvement efforts that we discovered that the factory is inseparable from the public's motivation to improve.

Bruce Hamilton (vice-president of manufacturing at United Electric Controls Co. 1991.)

This post is the first of a series about Visual Management in Construction. The topics I will write about in the different posts will cover: a general overview and background, the meaning of VM, the benefits of VM, implementation and examples of VM, common mistakes and pitfalls, a series of tools linked to VM, templates and resources to implement the VM philosophy.

1. A general overview of Visual Management

During my 25 years of experience in the construction industry, I have verified that in all companies there are employees who are inclined to be motivated by their work. Keeping them informed about how their efforts affect the result, as well as giving them the responsibility to achieve their goals increases that motivation.

Yet for decades, companies have operated under the opposite assumption. In factories, workshops, construction sites and offices, the management teams have assumed that information sharing was not something to be considered: all information was in the hands of the bosses, and the workers remained kept out of it.

Imagine a basketball match where the audience, players and coaches did not know the result minute by minute. No one would accept it, and most would lose interest. When a basketball match ends, the amount of information available to us is enormous and coaches use that data to improve weak points. However, why is the same not required in the construction industry?

In a Lean company, workers know the exact result, at every moment of the day. Through visual systems, they know exactly what they must produce in the day and where they are in relation to the total, they know the cost savings, the defect rate and how their work affects the quality of the final product, they register and show each problem of the day, and take pictures or drawings of each problem and its solution or improvement so that their ideas can stimulate other ideas. Visual Management provides the necessary management tools to create this environment prone to the continuous improvement of companies and their employees.

The XX century (and part of XXI) was dominated by Mass production. Under that production system knowledge within the company usually comes in two forms:

  • Centralized, so that few people own the knowledge and most ignore it; or
  • Individualized, so that workers have knowledge acquired through experience but there are no incentives for them to share it with others.

The XXI century, Companies will operate under Lean production (yet under transition in some industries like AEC Industry). Under this production system knowledge within the company adopt this philosophy:

  • Knowledge is shared. It is based on a transparent information system, available and visible to everyone in all areas (visual production management). At any time and in any place, any worker knows what he has produced, what he has left to produce and if he has produced it well.

VM is not new in construction. Lauri Koskela was a pioneer in this sense. Various factors made it difficult to present a coherent overview of the ideas and techniques of the new production philosophy when Koskela presented his seminal work on the application of the new production philosophy to construction in 1992, since the field was still young and constantly evolving, at that time. Nonetheless, Koskela already included the concept of Visual Management in his classification of the main Lean concepts and techniques. So, visual management was included in the lean construction theory from the beginning.

Visual Management, or “control by sight”, has become a key theme in Lean philosophy. In fact, it is the “litmus test” for Lean implementation. If you go into the workplace and find that schedules, production control, standard work, the problem-solving process, quality defects rate, safety indicators, and so on, are not immediately apparent, and up to date, there is evidence that the workplace is far off Lean. Visual management is oriented to visual control in production delivery, quality, safety, costs, people skills, and workplace organization, and the goal is to render the standard to be applied and a deviation from it immediately recognizable by anybody.

2. The 5 questions that a Visual Workplace must answer by itself

There are five questions to test if you want to be sure that Lean is well implemented either in the construction site or in the project office. When you enter in the workplace or big room, the information around and the sum of the exposed visual boards should speak to you and answer, even without the need to ask anybody, to these 5 questions:

If the System can answer these 5 questions, we can ensure that Visual Management is well implemented and carrying out its mission of informing and communicating what is happening in real time with the process.

3. The 10 benefits of Visual Management

For more than 10 years I have been implementing Lean Construction in tens of projects and the concept of Visual Management has always been in the center, and its right implementation has been the key for success or failure. In summary, Lean will not be fully implemented unless there is an effective communication system between the process and the employees, from operators and site managers to top managers. A Lean system must speak to us through the visual devices installed in the company or the construction site, and must share the necessary information, in the necessary quantity, when it is necessary. Nowadays physical devices can and must coexist with the new information and communication technologies. Both types of information channels (paper tags and screens) must be used in a creative way depending on the context and the moment.

4. Lean Concepts linked to Visual Management

Visual management is the visual and definitive verification that Lean Construction was implemented correctly. Visual management is nothing more than the evidence that the set of Lean tools and concepts necessary for a given project was suitably implemented; the KPIs chosen by the management team are being followed and updated by everyone, and continuous improvement based on the performance obtained is being carried out in the right way. For this reason, implicitly to visual management, through the different devices and forms of visual communication having been installed, we will be able to observe the following Lean concepts and tools:

Concept/Tool Description
Visual Communication One of the first things we need to create in a Lean project is a visual and transparent communication system among the members of the project team.
The Obeya or Big Room Is the visual place where people meet together to plan, schedule activities, analyze and discuss problems, and follow up key process indicators. It is an essential element for the Last Planner System.
Skill Matrix Indicates skills from beginner to instructor. Employees on the vertical axis, and the needed skills on the horizontal axis. It is a useful tool for the Human Resources Department to organize suitable training and hiring.
Standardization Standardization sheets must be close to the workplace to share how to do a task or activity, following the best way to do it, according to current conditions.
Kanban Is a visual system for production control of parts and raw material. It’s based on Just In Time and Pull concepts, to produce parts just when they are needed, where they are needed, in the needed quantity.
Heijunka Post Production visual control tool to display the status of the daily schedule. The LookAhead Plan would be its adaptation to Construction to visualize the weekly production control.
Quality Visual Control Two Lean tools help to quality visual control. Poka-Yoke is a tool to avoid quality mistakes and keep health and safety. Andon means light and is a visual display that indicates if there is a problem in the workplace.
Visual indicators of the process Key Process Indicators indicate if we are doing it well or not.
PDCA and Kaizen PDCA makes progress visible and indicates the problems, the root cause, and actions to eliminate the root cause, who must implement the actions and by when.
The 5S Must be integrated with visual management. 5S includes concepts as organization, order, cleaning, maintenance, self-discipline, standardization, safety, logistics, etc.

In this post we have presented an introduction to Visual Management. I hope you continue to enjoy the following posts in which I will develop in greater detail the concepts and tools described here, with the aim of helping and inspiring you to create better workplaces for both the company and the employees.

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Juan Felipe Pons has worked as a building engineer since 1998. He has a MSc in Construction Management and PgCert in Lean Manufacturing (Polytechnic University of Valencia). Currently, JFP is working as a Lean construction trainer and consultant for several companies and organizations. He has written two books and has been invited as a speaker in several MSc of Project Management, MBA programs, and international conferences.