Nicolette Dalpino  |  10/29/2008

Profiles in Quality with Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Ph.D

The visual workplace: creating an infrastructure of excellence through visual management.

Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Ph.D., is an educator, implementer, and a researcher with more than 25 years in the field of workplace visuality. Considered by many a leading visual expert, Galsworth is the author of a number of books on organizational improvement and workplace visuality, including Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking (Visual-Lean Enterprise Press, 2005), recipient of the Shingo Prize for Research. Galsworth, also a Malcolm Baldrige examiner, established Quality Methods International (QMI) in 1991 as a consulting, training, and research firm specializing in the visual workplace. Prior to forming QMI, Galsworth was head of training and development at Productivity Inc., where she worked closely with Dr. Ryuji Fukuda to adapt the CEDAC method for Western audiences-and with Dr. Shigeo Shingo to develop, among many things, a Western-based poka-yoke method. Galsworth was also principal developer and implementer of visual factory, TEIAN (worker-led suggestion systems), and hoshin kanri /X-type matrix planning (policy deployment). Since then, she has worked with top companies around the world to create and proof a series of methods and formulate them into a single, sustainable framework that have come to be known as the technologies of the visual workplace.


Quality Digest : What is a visual workplace?

Gwendolyn Galsworth : A visual workplace is a work environment that is infused with information--vital information needed by the people who work there. In such an environment, the answers to the critical and recurrent questions of everyday work are translated into devices that make those answers physical and visual and, as a result, embed the answer into the landscape of work itself. The definition that we use is a work environment that is self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating, and self-proving, where what is supposed to happen does happen, on time, every time, day or night, because of visual devices. Such a workplace is, safer, faster, effective, and profitable. And, to be clear, such an environment offers not dozens or even hundreds, but thousands of visual devices that capture and reflect the exact performance requirements and outputs of that space. So the visual workplace is an environment where the intention is translated into exact behaviors by taking information and translating that information into devices.

QD: Please give an example of a visual environment?

GG : You see this on roadways. You see this in hospitals. You see this very strongly in an airport. You get to go where you want to go, on time and safely, and the infrastructure that supports that is enormous. You might think of it as complex, but I prefer to think of it as intricate, because in fact there is an internal logic to all of the visuality at the airport to make that single event happen. For example, signage supports me in terms of making it easy for me to get a luggage cart, even if I never saw a luggage cart before. So, you go to the airport and you get your cart, and go to the counter, get your ticket, and go to the right line, but as you get closer and closer to your point of departure, you get more and more information that’s more particular to you. You go to the right gate, and all of these things are self-regulating because the environment is self-explaining. It is demonstrating that, and that is its purpose. A visual environment is about constantly taking what’s supposed to happen and translating it into visual cues that ensure it happens. These devices are intentionally created for that single purpose.

QD : How does that translate back to the visual workplace?

GG: The visual workplace has a huge application for simply letting people feel safe. I would emphasize that although it’s quite a subtle issue, the level of not just physical safety, but also psychological safety, is very hard to find. It’s feeling as though the environment is reliable, that the environment is one that you can move in and not be under psychological threat. It isn’t that we’re all control freaks; it’s just that we need a certain level of stability and repeatability just to keep our sanity, otherwise it’s called a war zone.

QD : So, you’re taking the stress out of the workplace, and making it safe, to free up the mind?

GG: That’s exactly right. What was unknown is now knowable, and you can move within it with a sense of safety and maybe even command, and that frees you up. You feel safe and can begin to look for the next level of pattern. In visuality, the mind finds that pattern and captures it visually; you enjoy that for a short while, and then the mind does what it is made to do, which is to seek the next level of pattern. We have a name for that process; it’s called “continuous improvement.” It’s what Quality Digest is about. Our mind is the master of that because it’s a pattern-seeking mechanism. So as we free up the mind to just rest, we create the workplace as a sanctuary. I don’t mean palm trees and fountains; I mean that people know the fundamental environment, and they understand how to navigate it. What I have observed in a highly visual environment, when it’s properly implemented, is that there is a harmony of intention and skill, and an alliance of wills that is one of the highest outcomes that we can create as human beings.

QD : So the basic idea is to create safety, establish an infrastructure, and free the mind, and then from there everything else can grow.

GG : Yes, and here’s the tricky part: Who puts this infrastructure in place? At the best implementation, it’s the people who use the environment. In Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking , I talk about the ten doorways into a visual workplace. Using the ten doorways as a guide, the organization can make sure that everyone--all members of the workforce--get directly involved in asking and visually answering the need-to-know/need-to-share questions, from the viewpoint of the individual. We have learned many things during the past 25 years about what to do and what not to do in creating a robust and sustainable visual workplace. The core of this is: Visuality is I-driven. Whether that “I” is the leader or the operator or the supervisor or someone in the middle like you and me, it is the “I” that triggers the visual devices. This is best captured in the framework of two driving questions for workplace visuality.

First, what do I need to know right now that I don’t currently know in order to do my work? Answer that question iteratively and translate each answer into a visual device, and you have better than half the journey completed.

Second, what do I know that others need to know and that I need to share so that they can do their work? One does this iteratively as well, over time populating the immediate work area and customer interface with hundreds (or even thousands) of visual devices.

QD : How do you start to establish a work environment that is “self-explaining, self-regulating, and self-improving”?

GG : You can see the absence of visuality in most work environments simply by looking at what’s not there. The technique is to stand in the midst of a visually infused environment (this can be a factory or a supermarket or a football stadium) and then meticulously remove in your mind’s eye all the visual devices that you see. Do a slow 360° turn and ask yourself, “What can I tell simply by looking?” Answer that question as completely as you can. Then to build your skill, let your mind erase all the visual devices that you just noticed. Next take five steps and do a 180° turn, ask the same question, and then remove the devices that you see at this closer vantage point. Then take another five steps, ask the question, and remove that next layer of visuals until you can go no further. Then look again to see if there’s a visual before you and remove that. Couple the removal with what you imagine will happen when these layers of visuals are removed. How would human behavior change? What would happen to the safety or risk factors? What would be the effect on the economics of that space? If we’re in a stadium, could the stadium still handle 50,000 people entering, getting to their proper seats, buying refreshments, going to the restroom, and leaving safely, all within a 3.5-hour period? Or would a different order of functionality reign? Mayhem, perhaps?

When you are tasked with assessing a facility interested in visuality as an outcome, you do the same exercise, only this time when you do your 360° turn and ask what you can tell merely by looking, notice how often you are forced to respond, “Nothing.” As you walk through your 180° turn and then closer and closer and closer, see how long it takes before you can answer with precision. The procedure I just described is a powerful way to assess any work environment for its level of visual competency.

QD : When you were working with the Netherlands company Royal Nooteboom Trailers, what was the problem and how did you solve it?

GG: One of the problems in my area of concern was that they didn’t have the concept of driving improvement. They didn’t know how improvement happened, but they knew that they wanted it. They didn’t know that they could make it happen once they learned the paradigm. That was one aspect of a problem. Another problem was that they were running out of parts. They were an assembly company making trailers, and they’d run out of a part with a trailer 99.9-percent built. Then the trailer would have to be stored somewhere--these are huge trailers, as long as your house, and finding a place to store them was not easy. They didn’t have any infrastructure for dealing with these irregularities. What I did was take the owner to the balcony that overlooked the floor, and I said to him, “What do you see?” He was able to pull back and look at the macro level with his own eyes. That evolved into five questions that he asked himself when he looked at the floor, and they were something like, “Is my production level correct? Do I have enough people? Do I have enough resources? What problems do I see that are going to happen in the next three hours? What problems do I see that will happen after this week?”

Simultaneously, I was introducing him to a great policy-deployment tool called the X-type matrix, which is a form that allows you to write your entire annual plan on a single page. It has to fit on a page, and it’s a way of saying no to the many and yes to the few.

QD : What is the next mental level of pattern for you?

GG: One of the areas that interests me the most, now that I have the technologies of visuality down, standardized, and robust, is what is the leadership role? Is it really that important? Yes, it’s really that important. How do we create it, and how do we inspire these leaders to lead? How do you implement when you don’t have commitment at the top? I have found it to be very interesting to work through the visual paradigm and turn it into a leadership opportunity.

Then there is the whole question of metrics. How do you use measures to actually drive the organization? There is a lack of understanding. It isn’t that people misunderstand; they don’t even ask the question. Leaders often don’t know what their job is, and they certainly don’t know how to lead. It’s light years away. They don’t even know that they are not leading. They’re sitting in a chair, and they think that because they’ve been hired for that position, that they’re qualified.

QD : One final question. If you had to express the top three things to tell a prospective leader, what would they be?

GG: Learn to see. Be crystal clear about the outcomes you require. Teach others how to become leaders of improvement.


About The Author

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Nicolette Dalpino

Nicolette Dalpino is a news editor for Quality Digest.