Communication is at the heart of any continuous improvement program. If intent can’t be clearly communicated, then it is unlikely any process improvement initiative can gain traction.
In today’s world where manufacturing has transformed into a global industry with multiple languages, time zones and cultures, language can often be a stumbling block to effective, clear communication. The expression that “one picture is worth 1,000 words” has much truth to it. Good visuals that can help you to better plan, schedule, organize and communicate information can quickly become an essential part of any Lean manufacturing environment.
Those manufacturers considering how to increase the use of visuals across plant floor operations might consider the use of specialized whiteboards. Based on my conversations with leading providers in the field, I have found there are several common characteristics that make a difference between good and bad visuals, which for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll call the 5 E’s:
- Easy to Setup: Especially in a lean environment when your main goal is to eliminate waste and get products out to consumers as soon as you can (i.e. accelerate new product introduction), employees and managers don’t have a lot of time to put into setting up a visual system. The best visual systems are ones that are simple by nature and do not require a lot of time and energy to setup. The Key Performance Indicator (KPI) whiteboard example is a perfect use of a whiteboard that is easy to setup and maintain, yet can convey important metrics quickly and easily.
- Easy to See: Whiteboards that use color, shape and size, and are located in the “right place” where people who need the information can easily see them will be far more effective. For example, a whiteboard conveying safety metrics and performance that is placed in a high traffic area where everyone on the factory floor can readily see it will help better raise awareness of what it takes to operate in a more safe environment. Metrics displayed might include the number of accident free days.
- Easy to maintain: Posting information to a white board must be easy to do, or else information will soon become out-of-date. Information must be constantly updated, with new data being virtually instantaneous. This way it’s easy to keep your employees informed with what is going on (use of pens and magnets can help here). A whiteboard displaying production rates that is easy to maintain allows managers to keep track of actual and accumulated yields against goals, and then also lets workers post production problem notes right as they occur.
- Easy to use: Unlike a computer, whiteboards are always on and are always available to share information with everyone 24/7. Even in a power outage, assuming some light exists, information on a whiteboard remains visible. And, most likely, employees have had experience working with a whiteboard, so new training is not needed. Using a focused and universally recognized visual image for everyone to use and understand goes a long way to improving how your metrics are communicated.
- Easy to understand: Visual systems can be used to communicate universal symbols, images, color, size and position to create emphasis in a Lean manufacturing environment. The most important words on a visual system are big and in bright colors, while the less important words are smaller and require some study. Examples include those with a central image and highlighted details on either side, which provides a self-explanatory whiteboard system, can be a great communication tool.
We live in a digitized, highly automated world today. As such, manufacturers have invested millions of dollars into IT systems, enterprise software solution and the hardware necessary to run these solutions. Yet, at the same time, it can be beneficial and a welcome change to have a “non-digital” tool that is used, to help better communicate manufacturing objectives, goal performance to plan as well as other safety related metrics. Something as “non-technical” as a whiteboard can offer a different communication tool that can readily display a message visually, while at the same time, can be almost a novelty in not being digital, that it is actually observed on the shop floor. After all, that is what great communications is all about!
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