Use Visual Control So No Problems Are Hidden

Mr. Ohno was passionate about TPS. He said you must clean up everything so you can see problems. He would complain if he could not look and see and tell if there is a problem.

—Fujio Cho, President, Toyota Motor Corporation

If you walked into most manufacturing plants outside Japan in the 1980s, you would see a mess. But it was what you would not see that was most important. You would not be able to see around the piles and piles of inventory that were stacked to the roof. You would not be able to tell whether items were in place or out of place. Certainly you could not see if there were problems with how work was being done, as Taiichi Ohno wanted. The accepted dysfunction of the day was to see no problems and hear no problems until the hidden problems jumped up and bit you in the face. By that time, it usually wasn’t a problem, but a fire-fighting crisis, and managers would spend much of their time jumping from putting out one fire to the next. In short, crisis management was the accepted mentality of the day.

The Donnelly Mirrors (now Magna Donnelly) Grand Haven plant, which produces exterior automotive mirrors, was so disorganized when they began implementing lean manufacturing that no one could see much of anything except waste. One day a Ford Taurus mysteriously disappeared. It had been in the factory so they could try fitting it with some prototype mirrors. When it vanished, they even filed a police report. Then it turned up months later. Guess where it was. In the back of the plant, surrounded by inventory. Donnelly associates now tell this story to illustrate how far they have come since implementing lean (Liker, 1997).

Outrageous as the Donnelly story may seem, it dramatizes what many of us deal with in our workplaces daily. Try this little exercise at your own place of work. Go up to a co-worker and ask to see a specific document, tool, or something on his or her computer or the company’s intranet. Watch to see if the person can go immediately to one place and pull out the document, locate the tool, or find the information on the computer on the first try. The amount of time it takes, and perhaps the person’s frustration level, will most likely tell you at a glance whether your co-worker’s way of visually organizing his or her workplace is in control or out of control. Or observe a conference room that is used for important planning meetings. (Some call them “war rooms.”) Is it easy to see at a glance the status of what is going on? What do you see when you look at the walls? Are there charts and graphs that tell you if today the managers are ahead or behind schedule on the action items? Are any abnormalities or delays in the project or operation easily visible? That is, are there “visual controls,” the ability to see abnormalities at a glance?