What is Visual Management?

Visual Management is an essential foundation tool of an organisation attempting to operate Lean.

What is Lean? Essentially, “Lean” is a set of conceptual tools and principles derived in order to help an organisation run more efficiently by continually hunting down and eliminating waste. Waste in this context is defined as any process or output that happens within an organisation that the ‘customer’ of the organisation would not wish to pay for.

Instruct & Keep Safe

Whilst being popularised initially as a foundational tool for Manufacturing organisations operating Lean, Visual Management in its purest forms (sometimes referred to as Visual Control) can be seen in many applications in the modern world. One of the simplest examples of Visual Management that most people can relate to are Traffic Lights. Everyone understands the very important cues these very simple colour messages communicate no matter the language or location.

Very simply traffic lights say – It is ok (to proceed) or, it’s not ok (to proceed). In this way Visual Management has the ability to provide instructions everyone can understand that help to keep people safe and away from harm. Further examples of this type of Visual Management would be road traffic signs where the safety message behind the sign is condensed into an easily understood image with little or no actual written language used

Visual Management - People Crossing at Traffic Lights

Condition & Abnormality

Visual Management is a vital tool in communicating condition and abnormalities in organisation that are adopting lean practices. The Traffic Light colouring system (Red, Amber and Green) is often applied in Visual Management as a means of telling the user if something is OK (green), at risk or questionable (amber) or not OK (red). Examples of this would include-

·        A production line is running with no issues – green light.

·        A part has been quality checked but is close to being out of standard for specification – amber status magnet.

·        A target for the number of units produced in a given time period has not been met – the actual number produced would be written in red.


In this way Visual Management allows anyone to very quickly see the condition of a process or situation without the need to; find someone to speak to or find documentation that explains, both activities being wasteful in nature.

Visual Management - Shadow Board showing missing tool

Visual Management is effective in communicating to users abnormalities in processes, situations and products. Simple visual cues also help to eliminate: excess time taken on simple tasks, judgement calls and errors or quality problems.

Visual Management informs the user the standard or usual location of key pieces of equipment and   also when there is an abnormality as equipment is missing. Tooling shadow boards visually inform the user two key pieces of information information-

·        A piece of equipment is missing – as there is a space where the tool should be (the abnormality)

·        What the specification of the equipment is – by profiling the outside shape of the shadow

Bringing attention to the user that there is an abnormality in that a tool is missing also helps reduce time looking for the tool as it is likely that the tool is in use elsewhere. The alternative, where there is no control demonstrated could lead to the user needlessly searching through drawers or on worktops when in fact it is possibly in use by a colleague the whole time.

Judgement calls on action to be taken can be eliminated with simple Visual Management devices. Visual minimum/maximum (max/min) level indicators utilise Visual Management to control processes such as stock and inventory quantities. Too much inventory is one of the (Seven deadly) wastes that hinder organisations from being lean. If a stock quantity falls below the visual minimum level this tells the user of an abnormality and that action is required to replenish the stock.  If a stock quantity is above the max stock level this tells the user of the opposite abnormality and that no action should be taken to replenish until the stock level falls. Another relatable example of visual min/max level indicators is the dip stick used for checking oil levels in a car.

Visual Management - Dipstick showing different levels of oil

Visual Management can be applied to draw attention to potential errors or quality problems. Boundary samples are often utilised in production to supplement part inspection standards by providing a Visual to compare against. An example of this would be highlighting with a paint pen the correct position and quantity of spot welds on a door panel in automotive manufacture. This Visual Management device allows the user to very quickly: confirm the correct quantity of welds have been applied and in the correct position.

Knowing the Score

Communicating statistical performance levels within an organisation is aided by the use of Visual Management. A useful comparison here would be that of a sports scoreboard. The scoreboard allows all involved (spectators, players and officials) to keep track of who’s winning, who’s done well (scored) and how long is left. The principles of these simple measures can be directly applied in most organisations. In fact, without simple Visual Management such as this; spending time in and around a business and trying to ascertain if things are going well or not by watching the people and processes would be very difficult. Just in the same way that trying to guess what the situation in football match is just by observing the players actions.


The Visual Management concept of “keeping the score” allows individuals within an organisation to understand if their team is having a good day or bad day. Understanding of performance and “good day/bad day” allows actions to be effectively directed especially if performance is below that of which is expected.

Visual Management - Scoreboard showing the score at a cricket match


Tracing of issues and rectification actions with Visual Management boards help organisations to drive continuous improvement. Only when an issue has been fully counter measured should an issue be removed from the Visual Management board in this way ensuring that the same problem never happens again.

Visual Management boards provide a forum for discussion between individuals and teams. Structured problem solving such as five why and fishbone analysis can be visually facilitated close to the problem or place of work.

Team Behaviours

Perhaps one of the most widely applicable and fundamental reasons for uptake of Visual Management is the engagement with teams and individuals and the cohesion this engagement provides. Visual Management Boards gives the power to the individuals to –

·       Raise team concerns to higher management

·       Provide a focal point for team meetings or “huddles”.

·       Understand a clearly communicated goal and track progress against this goal

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