Making Performance Visible

By Taylor Milner and US Office

If you’ve ever read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, you may recall  the story about Charles Schwab turning around a struggling mill in part by writing the production output for the previous shift on the plant floor. It helped the shop floor employees know how they had done and sparked healthy competition between the shifts.  This simple change increased output by 67% in just one day.

This example shows how important both visual management and employee engagement are in continuous improvement.  It also shows how simple visual management can be; Schwab used a piece of chalk and wrote on a concrete floor.

We think examples like the above can be helpful in highlighting easy ways you can use visual management tools to share performance, drive immediate improvement, and increase engagement.  Below are other examples that might inspire new and improved visual management in your organization.

Your morning coffee

Have you ever peeked behind the counter at Starbucks and seen the screen that the drive through “operator” has in front of them?

This screen has four big numbers on it.  Two of these are the time the car has been at the window and the time since it placed its order.  These two numbers help the Starbucks employee know how they are doing keeping the drive through line moving.

This visual management tool allows the drive through operator to observe their throughput. With a set limit for how long each customer is supposed to wait for their order, this tool shows whether performance is above or below target.

Keeping the line fed

We have worked in a number of facilities that rely on people to feed a production line.  The rate at which these individuals fed the line dictated throughput; they were the speed bottleneck.  To help these individuals understand how fast they needed to feed the line, we used two different visual management approaches.

The simplest approach was to set the line up so that product being loaded onto the line should be loaded without spacing. When there were no gaps between product, they knew they were feeding at the right speed. This standard was really simple to understand and easy to manage.

When this approach was not possible, we added a counter to the front of the line to show the speed that product was being loaded onto the line.  A digital display showed the rate in units per minute. When the rate was at or above the necessary target, the speed read out was green; when it was below, the read out was red.  This, while a bit more challenging to install, sent the same clear message.

Big screen case counter

Did we win the hour, the shift, or the day? How do we know?

Several plants we have worked have used the language of “winning the hour, shift or day” in their formal performance reviews. However, we noticed that the average operator had no way of knowing this in real time.

One of the first plants I ever worked in may still be the best example of showing real time performance.  This plant had a huge display that would show the number of cases that had been produced by hour, shift, and day such that anyone on the line could look up at any moment and answer “are we winning?”

When does the truck leave?

In distribution environments, getting trucks out on time is one of the keys to better service and lower costs.  The challenge for the average DC worker is knowing which trucks need to be prioritized and which can wait.

In one DC, we worked with the leadership to implement countdown clocks above each dock door.  To boost the percentage of trucks that left on time, supervisors would set the countdowns to expire when the truck needed to be filled.  The associates working on the floor then had an easy way to judge if the were getting trucks out on time, if they needed to pitch in and help a truck that was falling behind, and when was the best time to take breaks.  Service levels went up and the costs associated with late outbound trucks decreased.

A simple whiteboard

Some of the best visual management tools we have seen have been whiteboards with the most important hourly and daily KPI’s displayed on them.  The information on these whiteboards has answered questions below, and encouraged associates, team leads, supervisors and others to take action when KPIs were below target.

  • What is the expectation for production each hour and how are we doing against that?

  • How close are we to the end of the run?

  • Where should we be in a changeover or a clean at this point in our shift?

  • Who is doing what and when during production, a changeover, or a clean?

  • What is the goal for the month (in any number of metrics) and how are we doing against that?

We have all likely seen a thermometer used to track savings or some other goal.  That is a variation on the same easy, visual tool.

Pile it high

A plant manager I once worked with wanted to drive down the creation of material waste in his plant.  To kick off this effort, he had his team stack all of the waste in the middle of the production floor for a week rather than put it in the dumpster (they were making paper products so this was okay; a different arrangement might be needed in a food plant).

By the end of the week, the pile of waste was so high that his team was already working on ideas for preventing its creation in the future.  They were both shocked and embarrassed as to how much was being created. Putting all of the waste up front and visible had made the opportunity too large to ignore.

If you measure it, you will manage it

In my experience, this old adage has proven itself time and time again.  However, with visual management, we are trying to get others to manage performance.  In these cases, maybe the saying should be “If I make it visible, my people will manage it.”  

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