Saving time: How Visual Management Benefits Knowledge Work

Today’s guest post was written by David M. Kasprzak.  David has worked with all levels of management in large commercial organizations and government agencies on budget development, project planning & performance measurement. Over the course of his career, he has realized that it is the qualitative elements of work that determine success or failure.  Based on this realization, he began to explore the principles of Operational Excellence and Lean process improvement, and apply those concepts to other areas of both work and life.  In 2010, David created the My Flexible Pencil blog to share his ideas on these topics.

Time, as we’re all well aware, is our most precious resource.  When it is gone – it is gone for good.  It doesn’t change form or turn into some other less complicated element – it is simply gone.  When it is used well, we can say that our time was turned into some useful activity or tangible product.  When it is wasted, the shame is greatest, since the time is gone for good and nothing of value was created to take its place.  Yet, for some reason, wasting time seems to be, by-and-large, perfectly okay.

Think of this: What if you hired a group of people to plan, coordinate, and execute taking thousands of dollars from people.  The group you hired became so adept at it that they were able to take that money from people who were so duped they gave it willingly.  What’s more, those who took the money then lit it on fire.

Doing such a thing is, of course, both bizarre and criminal.  However, when we set hapless managers into an organization where they have little ability or willingness to work on the business and not just work in the business, time is taken from people at every turn without so much as an afterthought.  Boring, useless, meaningless drudgery that simply wastes time is so frequently the norm that it is not just tolerated, but expected.

How can this tremendous waste of time be prevented?  Take a look at the typical office environment and you’ll see an immediate answer.  Or, rather, you won’t see it – because you can’t see much of anything.  Most of the workers and, therefore, the work are both hidden behind rows and rows of neutral-colored cubicles.  While some of those workers are, indeed, wasting time by delving into any number of distractions while hunkered down in their fabric-covered boxes, this is not the norm in most places.  The greater shame is that the way they are going about their genuine work is entirely out of the line-of-sight of anyone who is trying to see the work progress through the organizations.

While the completely open office environment isn’t the answer, either (it’s much too distracting and too noisy for people to concentrate), there is a need to invoke some visual controls in the office environment too.  How is that new software development project progressing?  Is there a clear, visual roadmap that lays out the steps the project must go through and status boards to communicate progress?  How do you know who is working on what – and not just as a general assignment, but in terms of who is working on what for how long right now?  How do you know when that person is stuck, waiting on some input?  What’s the status of that input?

In most places the answer requires sending emails, calling meetings, or – heaven forbid – getting up and going over to talk to someone.  All of which leads to information standing still or, at best, travelling much too slowly.  If, however, more visual cues were invoked so that information was shared more openly, more quickly, and with greater appreciation of the need for immediate, intuitive understanding of how work is progressing (or not) – information would transfer faster.  Instead, things are typically thrown into a powerpoint presentation that is shared in a meeting once a week – which is the equivalent of a factory floor batch-and-queue process that builds up a bunch of widgets only to release them to the cell once a week – whether the cell is ready for the batch or not.

Committing to visual controls information moves faster.  The greater the velocity of information exchange, the greater the awareness of potential problems and ability to take action before those problems materialize.  By adopting better visual controls, knowledge work environments can greatly increase both the amount and velocity of information moving through the organization.  While this seems obvious, it is a bit daunting that the habits and practices that have been developed outside of the shop floor, such as hiding people and work behind tall cubicle walls, do more to hinder the flow of information than to facilitate it.

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Posted on September 19, 2012, in Guest Post, Tools, Waste and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It would be great if someone could share some pictures of office visuals in action!

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