Human beings are naturally visual beings. While many people are able to learn through various methods such as auditory and kinesthetic learning, when it comes down to reactionary measures and movement planning, almost all humans use vision to guide their actions.
Nothing could be more applicable in the workplace, particularly in the atmosphere of a manufacturing environment, where focused attention is absolutely necessary at all times, and room for mistakes is very slim. Any sort of diversion or distraction will lead to a possible mistake, with quality and safety possibly hanging in the balance.
A visual workplace results in a work environment that will sort through the clutter and produce a clean, well organized, and efficient. Often times, it clears a path for more advanced improvement efforts, but in itself it is a powerful tool that will lead to improvement, sometimes almost immediately.
A visual workplace is the first step in the 5S system. ‘Seiri’, or the ‘Sort’ step in the 5S system is what brings the organization to a system or workplace. It starts at the worker level and continues upwards to the upper management level.
The first action that most companies take is to go through the workplace and look through the tools, equipment, and supplies that are not used on an everyday basis. With cooperation from the workers who operate the equipment, it should be relatively simple to identify the excess that exists around the plant. Using red markings to mark the tools and objects that are not necessarily an integral part of the manufacturing process is usually the first actual step in the right direction.
Often times, a lot of excess inventory are marked with a red tag, indicating that it is waste. This can lead to identifying bottlenecks and parts in the manufacturing process that may need additional resources.
Next, middle management will come in and map out the paths that the workflows follow and ensure that they are clearly marked, as straight as possible, and definitive. They will also ensure that there are no conflicts between workflows and workstation locations. Just as importantly, the astute manager will take information and tooling flow into account as well.
Sometimes it is impossible to get a good grasp on how important a visual workspace is until you are standing above the workplace from a good vantage point, often called the machining vantage point. Like a poorly coordinated intersection on the roadway, it is sometimes abundantly clear that better coordination is necessary. You may see workers crossing paths, information not flowing as optimally as it could, or tooling that is in the absolute worst place possible. All of these things should be changed before any further issues are addressed.
When a company finally gets serious about creating a visual workplace, they can expect to see dramatic changes in the way that parts, information, and personnel flow. The company usually sees a large reduction in defects, increased morale, and greater productivity.
A good example is shown in Figure (1). In this example, a chip manufacturing company has decided to take the visual workplace concept seriously. In the first part, anyone can clearly see that the plant has a lot of equipment, an entire workstation in fact, that is left over from a bygone era, in which they used it to produce an older style chip that they never use anymore. Instead, the equipment just sits obtrusively on the floor, slowing the flow of the assembly line and creating safety hazards.
What cannot be seen from this example is that all workstations still have the tools necessary to produce and work on the old chips. The chip manufacturer never removed those tools and left them at the workstations because it would incur a cost to remove them. While it will incur a cost, most managers will recognize that the tools are actually detracting from the current manufacturing of the chip, and the amount saved by choosing not to remove the tooling was long lost in the way of inefficiencies and lost productivity.
Once these steps were taken to clean the area and adhere to the 5S methodology of improvement, the visual workplace can take effect. Many times 5S is described as the method used to prepare for the ultimate goal of a visual workplace. Once implemented, a visual workplace is able to keep itself orderly and is self-regulating and self-improving, all because visual solutions have been developed.
If a workplace is a truly visual workplace, a person off the street that has absolutely no knowledge of the area can know exactly where each piece of equipment and each tool is located because it is clearly identified and marked, as shown in Figure (2). Figure (1) also demonstrates the importance of a visual workplace in safety, as can be seen by the yellow tape on the shop floor.
Visual workplace goes beyond labeling tools, however. It also includes such initiatives as coloring buttons that turn equipment on green instead of red, as well as maintaining yellow as a cautionary safety only color.
As stated before, a visual workplace is most effective if it starts on the ground floor. The workers who use the equipment every day will know best what components are and are not necessary. From there, it can move into more high level thought, such as reducing machinery, cutting out steps in a workflow, or even removing manufacturing processes altogether. These are usually accomplished at a much higher level than the worker level, but as you can see, obtaining a truly visual workspace can only be achieved if every member of the company is involved.
Most companies are surprised to see how inefficient their processes and manufacturing lines run. When they finally make a commitment to running a truly visual workspace, they will usually see a dramatic improvement to their bottom line. The most common reaction that companies give is one in which they could not believe they didn’t tackle it earlier.