Leveraging Visual Management for Change Transformation Success

A colleague once told me a story about an acquaintance of his who was asked to take over management of a failing manufacturing plant in the hopes that he could turn it around.  All he did for the first month or two was walk around observing: listening, watching, and learning. Nothing changed. Finally, at end of a couple of months this leader had identified a metric—something simple like the number of units produced. All he did was put up a poster above the cafeteria door each day displaying that metric for the previous day. In 60 days, the plant was profitable and on track again.

While this is an extreme case, it does demonstrate the potential effectiveness of visual management: presenting visual information and feedback to people doing work, for the purpose of enabling them to better perform that work.

For instance, if your job is to make widgets, it can be helpful to know how many you’ve made to date, how many you are making per hour against a standard goal, or how your team’s performance stacks up against another’s. Having this sort of data readily available to workers in a visual format fosters intuitive understanding of what the target or benchmark is and encourages self-correction and improved performance.

While visual management is perhaps best known for its applications in lean manufacturing, it can be useful in many other areas as well. Which begs the question: how can we use the principles of visual management to facilitate change transformation in organizations?

To answer this question, we must consider what information can be made available to people so they can monitor or self-correct on the key behaviors or activities that need to be done to implement change.

For example, if we have to move people from their current jobs into new jobs, one simple metric might be the number of people trained and started in their new job. So, if we know we need 200 people trained and productive in new ways of working, then having 70 trained and in their new jobs indicates we still have 130 to go. Knowing that the faster we can get all 200 people transitioned means the sooner we can realize business results while bringing stability back to people’s daily lives at work, and having a visual progress reminder can help keep leaders and organization members on track and motivated to maintain momentum towards the goal.

Two Key Points to Consider When Applying Visual Management to Change Transformation

As an agent of change responsible for driving organization transformation, there are two main factors to consider that can help you to incorporate visual management principles into your organization change strategy:

  1. What are the key indicators of progress in your change transformation?
  2. How can you make these key indicators more visible so people can self-manage their progress toward the desired end state?

The key thing to remember is not to make it too high level.  For example, say you are looking to increase sales in your organization. That is a good, clear goal. However, there are a lot of things that can affect sales:  economic factors, supplier availability, training, salesforce turnover, price increases, all kinds of things. When considering the visual management aspect of it, it’s important to choose things that are tactical and behavioral – things people can control or manage. So, if all you can control on the journey toward increasing sales is the number of customers you have introduced to a new product, then that’s what you want to use in your visual management system. That way, if you introduce the new products to your customers and do it well, and sales still go down because the economy is bad, you will at least know you weren’t failing in your change transformation, you were succeeding and something else got in the way of it.

Applying visual management can be a powerful way to help people self-monitor and self-correct to smooth the way for transformational change.  By choosing measures carefully and making them tangible in a way that helps guide action, leaders can accelerate the pace and the effectiveness of their organization’s change transformation efforts.

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