My visual management journey

My Visual Management Journey

We are inspired within VMT to design the very best in Visual Management, Visual Control, and Workplace Graphics Solutions.

We are a close-knit team of graphic designers, graphics and installation experts, managed by partners including me who share a Lean operations background from our time together as Managers and Engineers for Toyota Manufacturing in their plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire.

Lean Consultancy 

Over time a couple of us have become Lean consultants, helping Automotive, Rail and Aerospace organisations to deploy Lean thinking in their plants in the UK and across Europe.

Amongst other techniques we deployed were Visual Management centres (or Obeya rooms) to enable open reviews of key performance indicators and intent with daily progress. For anything from automotive plant performance through aircraft build and maintenance, rail depot performance, new infrastructure build projects and more. It was pretty varied work, and we enjoyed helping management teams get closer to the facts, engaging with their workforces to achieve results, bringing them together around good Visual Management content, ensuring no nasty surprises and supporting the gentle art of challenging constructive conversations.

It was not always an easy task, but it was fulfilling when it came together, and we faced many challenges. One of them was materials – the whiteboards and particularly formats we needed were in short supply. The process of laying out the boards was a manual skill, with thin lining (“team leader”) tape and a steady marker hand required. Great for initial thinking and design flexibility, but poor for visual appeal and ongoing professionalism.

Founding VMT

So, we established VMT to satisfy the most demanding of clients for Visual Management and Visual Control – ourselves. We know from first-hand experience the design, materials, and durability demands for Visual Management and Visual Control solutions, it took us a couple of years of development, but we succeeded and are proud to have become a trusted supplier to many valued clients over the years. 

Recently over a coffee and out of the blue, I started to share my early exposure to Visual Management with the team, which it turns out came as a bit of a surprise to them – they had assumed it was my Toyota experience which had been my introduction, and I must admit I had not shared my thoughts with them previously.

So, I thought I would share it here in my first blog for VMT.

It always gets a giggle when I tell people about my start in manufacturing management, and I can’t imagine why!

Where it all started

I started my manufacturing career in 1992 in the ceramics industry – in fact, in the mass production of sanitaryware. The factory I worked in produced a mind-boggling 8-10 thousand pieces of sanitaryware per week from a workforce of 600. A fair-sized employer and a household name, perhaps more men can recall the name than ladies, given the amount of time spent in front of them.

I worked for one of the big two manufacturers in one of the older sites of three – struggling for performance, the site was destined for possible closure if things didn’t turn around. We needed to improve our quality – our yield of first-time good pieces needed to improve by a minimum of 10-15%.

I was the junior or trainee Manager of the latter half of the manufacturing processes, then inspection and repair areas. Many of the procedures were manual and skilled, and quality losses primarily lay in the hands of the experienced workforce, together with the general cleanliness of the plant, which dictated contamination levels. Believe me – It doesn’t take much to spoil that pristine glass-like appearance of your favourite bathroom porcelain.

Every piece was manually inspected, defects recorded, attributed by type and where possible by person. Defect rates were tracked and trended. Defects were fed back to the appropriate areas and individuals by supervisors. Trends overlapped, moved, and changed, but the overall percentage was flat for my first year or so in the job.

New boss, new perspective

Then suddenly, a new boss arrived – a robust and idiosyncratic character. He had the rare skill to be able to be a demanding boss, supportive coach, interested investigator and chief cheerleader at all the correct times.

He wanted us to beat the larger plants’ performance, and I was to be his understudy. I felt blessed and cursed all at the same time.

One day over a smoking cigarette, he dictated his orders…

“Probyn, cut this large roll of graph paper to a six-foot length. Mark it up to be able to plot the overall quality rate. Place it on the wall outside the inspection area.” Which was also on the main walkway in the factory. “Backdate the result daily for the last month – I want the overall good and scrap rate plotting, make it neat and understandable because everyone is going to see it, and if it’s scrappy, I’ll make you take it down and repair it.”

“And here are some important points I want you to follow exactly, plot the result every day at exactly 1000 am, and if you can’t do it, then call me because I will come and do it for you.” “Stay there and wait for the supervisors and me to come to you at 10.15, where we will talk through the results.”

I don’t know if he knew exactly what would happen, I certainly didn’t, but I plotted the result precisely as he instructed then waited for the supervisors and him to attend. We talked through the results, the rising and falling trends, what were the supervisors going to challenge? What did and didn’t we understand, and what were we going to investigate?

The learning curve

But slowly, at first, something else started to happen. As people walked by for their morning break at 10 am, they asked me about the plot. What was happening? Which areas were improving? Which areas were struggling? They offered comments, challenged my analysis and thinking, and offered opinions about what they thought were the real reasons for the defects.

I listened and learned from both conversations – the formal meeting with the Supervisors and the informal chats with the workforce. The conversations started to merge, and then the meetings started to merge and mingle. New investigations were kicked off onto subjects that previously would have been thought trivial. The new boss challenged, encouraged, and sometimes even helped me to investigate. I learned more about process and quality control in the next six months than I ever had sitting in the office doing the analysis.

Over the months, the results began to rise unsteadily at first, but bit by bit, it clawed its way up. Trends improved in almost all areas. Staff stopped for a chat or asked cheekily, “How did we do, Dave? Who’s to blame? How did I do?”

We changed things up from time to time – added more analysis of problem areas, did focus improvement activity, then watched to see if the result changed, added in challenge targets.

But some things never changed. The overall plot stayed in place, handwritten. I updated it daily at 10.00 – just as the staff walked by for their break.

Everyone who visited was shown the history and daily performance plot; we shared a lot of pride along with the workforce for the improvements which were made. But it was always difficult to explain precisely how we lifted the results – it was lots of minor improvements and a commitment to cleanliness and orderliness, more than a couple of big game-changers. But the nature of the conversations changed too, and progress became a shared activity rather than something that was forced upon people.

The Next Steps

I’d like to be able to report a happy ending that the factory remains active but alas not. I drive by the old abandoned factory in which I learned these lessons frequently on my way into VMT. Almost all sanitaryware manufacture has ceased in the UK. It remains a highly skilled manual job for the most part, with much manufacturing now relocated to lower labour cost regions across the globe.

The experience taught me a lot about visual management, workforce engagement, and problem-solving. I’d like to think it bought the factory and the jobs it contained the few more years of work I enjoyed there. After all, there’s never a wrong time to improve quality and efficiency performance in my experience.

We all had to look for new jobs, and I was relocated to one of the larger remaining factories, but the decline in the ceramics industry continued at a pace. I applied for other jobs and was pleased but nervous to be interviewed for a Toyota position a couple of years later, where I was asked about my experience of process improvement. “Could you give an example of when you were involved in quality improvement activity, and please explain what you did”. So I did!

My Future in Visual Management

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a career spanning a further 30 years this year across Toyota, Lean consulting and F1 operations management, which sounds and probably was more glamorous than sanitaryware manufacture.

There’s lots of management talk about digital dashboards, KPIs, BI and analytics, and I have no problem with them; I use them where appropriate, and I’m thankful for them.

But I’m still convinced there is an ongoing role for strong visual management and visual control in engaging people and teams around goals, performance and problem solving, and that’s something I’m more than happy to be able to continue to support others in doing through our work at VMT.

I hope my thoughts give you some inspiration for your own Visual Management and Visual control ideas.

Please get in touch; the experienced team here with me will be delighted to help you.