Visual Management cracks the Wall

Visual management is often proposed as one of fundamental tools in the philosophy of lean thinking and the successful use of visual management as one of the key differentiators of lean thinking over other improvement methodologies. Yet when lean thinking is applied to the construction environment does anyone really understand the concept of the visual workplace?

There are some very profound definitions for what we mean by visual management but for me its what we use at 6ix, “A signal that needs no interpretation and provokes a response”.

The term visual management for me can be split into the two areas of visual controls and visual displays. Visual controls are the signals that assist the delivery teams in clearly establishing their performance status and identifying any abnormalities that need to be addressed, coded in a way that expresses urgency. Visual displays are the signals that allow the teams to track and analyse their performance and improvement activity and communicate this to wider business units.

I have been fortunate to have spent many years working in manufacturing supply chains and have witnessed first hand how simple visual signals can out-shine complex computer planning systems and empower workforces to take control and ownership of their production environments, leading to higher performing teams enjoying greatly enhanced job satisfaction. Yes I have often endured the endless factory tours, which focus on huge team boards with endless graphs of production performance and team skills matrices. But I have also been privileged, often in small businesses, to witness how teams have visualised their workplaces to meet their customer needs, on time and every time. Simple max/min lines, clear stock identification areas, kanban signals, effective shadow boarding, I have witnessed as powerful signals to enable work teams to understand and control their production outputs and the demands of their ‘next customer’. These control signals allow production to flow with limited reference to higher management and interpretation of complex computer outputs.

To date my observations of visual management in construction have been mainly of visual displays, mostly boards showing out of date gantt charts and KPI’s that nobody responds too. More often than not these KPi’s focus on health and safety and waste management issues with little on reporting on QCD performance. Displaying team performance is taboo in an un-collaborative construction environment and the priorities advocated in PAS1192 and the Construction Strategy 2025 need to be taken on board by all if we are to progress here. If we are to make advances in lean thinking in construction then we need to develop visual control that will support design development and construction activities and will provide the transparency needed for construction teams to become high performing.

Professional football has for some time presented visual displays of team and individual performances for us all to discuss; league position, yards run, goals per game, shots scored within the box etc. However at the world cup in Brazil this year we were all able to witness how a simple visual control can overcome a perennial abnormal situation. The results are extraordinary. The introduction of the ‘vanishing spray’ appears to have virtually eliminated all issues in getting the wall at a free kick back 10 yards.


Remember the problems and frustrations for us the viewer:

  • Walls creeping forward when the referee moved away
  • The kicker moving the ball ever closer to the goal when the referee turned away
  • Kicks being taken and sometimes blocked when the wall was never anywhere near 10 yards
  • Free kicks often being retaken
  • Undermining of the referees authority
  • Delays to the flow of the game
  • Opportunities for confrontations between players

With a simple can of vanishing spray so many issues and abnormalities were eliminated from the game and are now I see being adopted in the British Premier League. The dramatic antics of the professional footballers seem to have been cured by a simple can of spray and a line on the floor. No more fights and yellow cards.

Well done FIFA or whoever introduced the idea. Unfortunately it was not 6ix. However it is a real life endorsement of what we preach and what we challenge construction teams to consider. Visual displays are great and important but it’s the visual controls that drive the real improvements.