Lean Manufacturing Communication Strategies: Visual Controls Provide Quick, Efficient Communication

01/02/2018 14:240 commentsViews: 20

The new president of Pallet Services Corp, Travis Huisman, shares principles of lean communication that he has used in consumer products manufacturing.

03PalletConsultantsThe Art of Lean:
The new president of Pallet Services Corp, Travis Huisman, shares principles of lean communication that he has used in consumer products manufacturing.

A picture is truly worth a thousand words, and communication is critical for process improvement. Those two principles are behind the lean manufacturing concept of visual controls. These are visual communication or cues that help employees quickly understand how a process is functioning, what should or should not be done and what needs to be addressed.

Visual controls may be signs or placards. It could be visual organization with an outline on a floor or tool boards where missing equipment can be easily determined. For several years, Travis Huisman was the CEO of a consumer products manufacturing company in Washington state, and he was the lean champion at this company. He is bringing his lean background into play as one of the new owners of Pallet Services Corporation, which has yards in Tacoma and Pasco, Washington.

Instituting lean principles is not a static thing. Huisman said, “As the consumer products company, we went through cycles of ups and downs through lean. We went into it looking for process improvements, efficiencies and cost controls. And then after that, we quickly realized that lean is a really great communication and engagement tool.”

Lean management prioritizes communication both up and down the chain of command at a company. Huisman added, “Lean is really much more than just a project, it is a cultural transformation tool for a company.”

So how can you tell if a company truly gets lean? Huisman commented, “A telltale sign of a truly lean company is that you see on the shop floor that the managers are open to input and change from the line workers. This reflects a leadership team that realizes the people with the boots on the ground should be making decisions about improvements because they are the ones closest to the processes.”

A culture that is able to communicate up and down the chain of command tends to produce high morale, engaged employees and a focus on adding customer value along each step of the process. These companies are focused first on adding customer value, not just cutting costs.

One of the big problems that companies face with digitization of information and records is that critical information gets locked behind computer screens. Huisman suggested, “You have to put information in a format where people on the shop floor can readily see and understand it. The whole objective is to shine a light on areas of the business that are a priority.”

For example, Pallet Services is beginning to use a large magnetic board that is a diagram of its yard layout with inventory modules that are magnetized. You can move the modules around as products flow through operation. This is a quick way to monitor inventory cycles. And it makes sure that they have good rotation of stock. Huisman explained, “Any worker or manager can quickly understand where stuff is, the grade and how old it is. If you want to know where our oldest stacks of #2 grade pallets are, you can visualize the answer very quickly.”

There are three major types of visualize controls – process analysis, instruction and inspiration. Process analysis is kind of like a gauge, it identifies if something is running well or not and points to areas that need to be addressed. Instruction lets employees know what type of activity is allowed and forbidden. And inspiration is meant to encourage workers to strive toward developing a safe workplace environment.

An example of a process analysis is a red, yellow, green light system at each nailing machine to let operators and managers know if the machine is running well, has an issue that needs to be addressed or is stopped for the moment. Some companies don’t even use lights, Huisman said that he has seen a very low-cost method of using red, green and yellow Solo cups. Another process visual control is an outline of tools needed at each work station, so that you can quickly identify a tool that is missing or a chart identifying current production, last week’s production, target numbers, etc.

An example of a visual control with an instruction focus are warning signs for lock out/tag out before doing maintenance on a machine. Another example is warning signs about hazards in a plant. An example of an inspiring visual control is public recognition for safety award winners or a wall of fame for people who have maintained certain safety standards.

Huisman said, “Lean is really just common sense and you can make it as simple or technical as you want.”

So what key pieces of information need to be made more visible? How can you quickly and simply convey the top three things that shop floor workers need to know?

Huisman summarized, “Lean is not about investing a whole bunch of money. It is really about finding better ways of doing things with the resources that you have.”

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