Visual Workplace

When you are driving, do you normally follow the laws of the road by listening to auditory cues, or do you normally use visual cues to guide you through the maze of roads, walkways, turns, and curves? Of course, you primarily use visual cues, paying attention to the signs, markings, and lights that coordinate the dangerous and fast moving flow of traffic. This is the basis behind the implementation of a visual workplace.

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.


Figure (1)

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.

Visual Workplace Example

Figure (2)


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.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)

The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nothing symbolizes that more than the concept of Total Productive Maintenance, or TPM. As a newer concept to hit the marketplace, it is used to help maintain the plants and equipment at a company. If successfully conducted, TPM can rapidly increase the production associated with a production line while making the employee job satisfaction and morale hit new highs.

Maintenance of equipment is a part of life, particularly if a company is running a manufacturing plant. TPM will bring maintenance to the forefront of the business and ensure it is a top concern for management. With TPM, maintenance can be viewed as a profit activity, generating real dollars as the maintenance is conducted, and therefore is always allowed to squeeze in some maintenance related down time in the manufacturing day. Before TPM, maintenance would be conducted whenever the machine was down because it was broken, or whenever it was down for another reason. Once the TPM program is put into place, the uncontrolled down time due to emergency or unscheduled maintenance is kept to an absolute minimum.

TPM can accomplish many things, but there are five primary reasons a company will switch to the TPM mode of thinking. First, it can reduce cost by reducing the amount of unscheduled downtime associated with a piece of equipment or possibly even an entire production line. Next, quality will either be maintained or increase while the production quantity will increase.

Because the equipment is more reliable, not as much inventory will be kept on hand, leading to lower inventory levels, therefore reducing the costs incurred by a company that has to hold this inventory. Of course, because it is a lean process, it will also avoid the waste associated with pieces of equipment that are not optimized to their highest performance levels. This also costs the company money, time, and sometimes customer satisfaction. Lastly, along the same lines as product quality, the goods that are delivered will be in top shape and send to the customer without defect.

There are four different types of maintenance associated with TPM. The first, breakdown maintenance, is when an equipment fails, the maintenance is purely conducted to bring it back online and in a condition that it will be sustained online indefinitely. These repairs are typically very costly, result in a large amount of downtime, and occur at random, unpredictable times. It is in the best interest of most companies to keep the breakdown maintenance to a minimum.

Preventative maintenance is exactly what it sounds like. It is maintenance that occurs on a periodic basis, whether it be monthly, weekly, or daily, and is designed to maintain a piece of equipment in the best working order possible, and prevent the occurrence of breakdowns. It also extends the lifetime of the equipment dramatically. Unlike breakdown maintenance, it can be scheduled to coincide with production cycles and planned downtime. Two subsets of preventative maintenance are periodic maintenance and predictive maintenance, with both serving very specific functions in the TPM plan.

Corrective maintenance is another form that fits into the TPM puzzle. With corrective maintenance, the equipment is improved to make up for design flaws or inefficiencies that are associated with the manufacturing, supply, or design process. A good example of this would be upgrades for software which patch vulnerabilities discovered after the software is released.

The last form of maintenance is in a different class, and is called maintenance prevention. While the other three forms are actively fixing problems that have already occurred, maintenance prevention is fixing weaknesses that are going to prevent defects, safety, and failure prevention. It is the act of proactively changing the design at the manufacturing plant such that these changes will effectively improve the product.

Lean Manufacturing tools series - TPM - Total Productive Maintenance
Figure (1)

Figure (1) demonstrates how other quality tools are intertwined within and work in conjunction with TPM. While TPM can be seen as a higher level concept that incorporates all of these tools, the reality is that these tools support the TPM idea and without them, TPM would be nothing more than time wasted. Take note that 5S is considered the strong foundation that a solid TPM program is built upon. Without the clarity that 5S brings to the workplace, TPM is just another case of trying to find your way in the dark.

TPM is a very high level program that must begin at the CEO level. Because it effects all stages of the lifecycle and involves implementing large programs with very deep cuts into resources, as well as significant design, supply, and quality changes, it should be approved at no less than the highest level of management. Usually the best TPM programs have some method of feedback, however, in which the workers who will be performing the maintenance have the opportunity to voice their opinion and offer suggestions.

As stated before, TPM has the capacity to reduce downtime, improve product quality, improve reliability, and make life for employees inside a company much more enjoyable. It is ,however, a very large program to implement, and in doing so many incur significant upfront costs that don’t always have immediate recognizable returns on investments. In the long run, however, TPM should be integrated into every company’s equipment life cycle plan.

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Workflow diagram – An important lean tool

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of business and process management, this couldn’t be any more true. When it comes time to lean out a process, system, or business, the question of visualizing the process always comes up. Luckily a tool exists to bring everyone on the same page as well as visualize the processes involved, and this tool is a Workflow diagram. A workflow diagram is like the secret decoder ring that will result in the team’s understanding and focused improvement.

Just as it sounds, a workflow diagram is a visual depiction of a workflow, using visual representations such as flowchart symbols and annotations to show the different steps and decision points in a workflow. A workflow is a sequence of operations or processes as defined by the work of a person, a machine, a group of machines, or a group of people, organization or staff. The work itself may actually be a virtual representation of actual work, such as a decision, processing of a document, or a procedure that is conducted. The flow part of the workflow is oftentimes depicting a transfer of a document or piece of a product from one step or workstation to another.

The workflow itself is not a great lean tool. While depicting the process helps to visualize what is happening inside of the company, it does not show the places for improvement. Like a roadmap, it maps out the different destinations and paths to get to and from a destination. Also like a map, it does not show where the roadblocks, bumpy roads, heavy traffic, or bad weather is. Just as a map can be used as an underlay for a weather map or traffic map, the workflow can be used as the building block on which other assessment tools are based.

The workflow can be used as a great learning tool, especially for newcomers to the organization, which is an ISO requirement. Additionally, they should be characteristic to the company with its own terminology such as silos, teams, projects, and hierarchies.

In reality, it is often hard to trace the exact path of a task or document, especially when functional tasks and operational teams are not clearly defined. The workflow will often be better represented by a series of intertwined webs instead of clearly defined paths and flowing roadmaps. It is very common for a company to employ the use of software to help in defining and managing the workflows associated with a company.

After it is defined and improved, the end result is usually a better overall understanding of the company’s processes as well as improved efficiency, less complicated processes, improved process control and better quality and standardization. If all of the members of a workflow and business understand where their place is in the workflow and how they are supposed to interact with other teams and organizations inside of the workflow, the results are sometimes amazing at the level of improvement that is possible.

When a company first decides that it wants to employ lean processes, they usually start with a workflow diagram. Most managers and company executives are shocked to find out the inefficiencies that occur inside of their organizations. It is also a great way to make a big difference quickly by reminding, or informing all personnel that operate inside the workflow of what they should be doing with respect to processing the documents or materials that they handle.

Sample of a workflow diagram
Figure (1)

An example workflow diagram is given in Figure (1). The workflow depicted outlines a company that produces software. The specific workflow depicted here is that of the customer service workflow. In another words, what happens when a customer calls this software company?

Figure (1) should be relatively straightforward, but the company would like to lean this process out. In order to conduct the lean process properly, they hire a lean expert who documents the workflow you are looking at. Immediately, the lean expert sees some room for improvement.

The first issue addressed in the lean report was the fact that an operator, in the first step, is basically used as a call screener. They waste valuable time ensuring the call gets to the right place, oftentimes with no further action necessary on their part. The lean expert recommended that this step be replaced by a PBX system, which will reduce the amount of time an operator spends handling a call. In turn, they can handle more calls more frequently.

He also notices that the form 1182 and 1187 are used in very similar situations. He recommends combining the 2 forms into one that is applicable in every situation, whether it is a complaint that can or cannot be resolved by the operator. While the company may have alternative reasons for having two separate forms, this is a lean opportunity, and should be evaluated as such.

Someone who is well versed in lean processes should complete the workflow diagram. By diagramming even the smallest details, an opportunity for improvement may be realized where it may not have been readily apparent in prior attempts. If it were left up to the person who is actually completing the process, they may have a bias as to what they think they are actually doing compared to what they are actually doing.

Workflow diagrams are very powerful tools in the fight against waste. It should be obvious by now that they are not necessarily the end tool, but instead a tool to visualize the processes that are already in place. Many times managers and supervisors are shocked to see what actually happens compared to what should be happening.

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Value Stream Mapping (VSM) – Visualize the Value

It should be obvious that an ideal business and manufacturing process should run smoothly without any interruption between steps or departments. The quickest way from point A to point B is in a straight line, and the easiest way to achieve that straight line is by using Value Stream Mapping, or VSM.

VSM is used to identify the areas in which a large amount of waste exists. This gives the quality team a good idea where to focus their efforts and lean processes. By practicing VSM, a company can also streamline their business processes and achieve record levels of productivity.
More commonly known as “Material and Information Flow Mapping”, VSM seeks to analyze and optimize the flow of materials and information necessary to bring a product or service to a consumer. As you might expect, the simpler, more straight-line, and clearly defined the processes or value stream is, the more efficiently the company will run. If used correctly, VSM can be used in many different industries and processes, from customer service, to consulting services, and from optimizing manufacturing lines to paperwork reduction. No matter what industry, effort, or process, there are a few steps which outline the processes necessary for mapping the different value streams.

Many times, VSM is used in conjunction with the first S, “Sort”, in the 5S model. It can also be used when trying to achieve a visual workplace, something else that goes after the same objectives. In fact, the ‘Sort’ phase of 5S talks about finding out what the most efficient stream of information and parts flowing is and how to achieve that by removing the unnecessary tools and equipment are on the shop floor.

While it may seem like a simple task o do, often times, management does not realize that they do not have a firm grasp on the conduct of the processes within their own organization. When they attempt to start mapping out the flow, they are shocked to find that a lot of them are highly inefficient and contain many unnecessary steps, actions, and diversions. They end up having to interview their own employees about the processes that are in place to find out exactly how they are conducted.

If the workplace in question is a manufacturing or assembly plant, it is advantageous to get to a vantage point in which the manager can see the entire shop floor and all of its equipment, personnel and other resources in motion. The manager should be able to view the entire production as it is happening. Much like a conductor of an orchestra, this will give them a “bird’s eye view” of the actual conduct of the operations inside of the plant as they happen, instead of talking about what is supposed to theoretically happen inside of a boardroom or office.
When it comes time to implement the VSM techniques, it should be employed in four stages. The first is to identify what it is that is to be mapped, or what the “target” will be. Second, using the helpful hints from above, the current state of the process should be drawn. The steps, information flows, and delays that are necessary to deliver the target product or service should be included in the preliminary map.

The next step is where the magic happens. Management should be brought in to assess the current state of the value stream map it possibly identify areas which need work in creating flow by eliminating waste. And lastly, taking into account what was found in the previous step, the future VSM should then be drawn and implemented.

An example of this process can be seen in Figure (1). As you can see, this company has decided to outline their value stream. There are many places in which the company can improve the flow of information and parts.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) - A great lean tool

Figure (1)

Luckily, the management was able to identify the areas that can be improved. They noticed that process B1 was taking 8 hours, while taking up resources of 5 people. Part of this is due to the fact that the process in this figure sent 83% of the inventory through process B1 instead of B2.
Management also noticed that there was a solid 18 hours of delivery time, or 20% of the product’s cycle time. The team thought that putting Process B1 in the same location as Process C would improve delivery time, and it did. This way, the 8 hours of delivery time from B1 to C was removed, leading to a 10% decrease in production time. Process B2 was also dissolved, but the best practices from the better performing cell were incorporated into Process B1, leading to value improvements that led a chain reaction of savings.

While it is usually a management-lead initiative, in order to effectively create an accurate VSM, a company must employ the cooperation of its line workers to help the management create an effective VSM. Like a house without a strong foundation, without a good VSM to start with, the rest of the process will be useless.

Value Stream Mapping is one of the best ways for a company to understand its own processes and procedures. As most managers will be surprised at the inefficiencies, it is good to put them on paper so they can be addresses. Just as it can be used to identify the weak areas, it can also be used to project what the ideal VSM would look like, and use that as a reference when employing other Lean tactics to improve the performance of the company by eliminating waste. The end result is usually a stronger, leaner company that is streamlined to the point where it produces its maximum output with the least amount of defects.

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