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Visualising Workflows

23 July 2014

The more I understand about efficient and effective work practices, the more I realise that often the most important tactic to employ is that of visualisation – taking the work out of people’s heads and PCs and displaying the work in a shared space. Too often, work performance is completely hidden: the act of visualising the work helps employees to really understand the service that is experienced by customers and helps them to understand the issues that occur so that they can work together to bring about process improvement.

Within the world of lean thinking, the practice of ‘making work visible’ is often known as “visual management” and it’s a critical part of any kind of change programme. There are two main types of visual management: 1) visually displaying the performance of the work e.g. a graph which shows daily turnaround time of task and 2) visual guides to help the work to physically flow within a manufacturing or service system e.g. a standard operating procedure on the wall to guide advisors how to deal with a given task.

You can enter a lean working environment and pretty quickly can get a sense of the different roles of the teams, how the work flows, whether teams are on target and the typical problems that occur. A successfully visually managed environment should also give visitors an understanding of how teams are tackling these problems.

As part of a project to improve process and service in the University, I worked with a lady, Manjit Bansal, who was extremely skilled at visual management. She was tasked to bring about improvement within the Dental School and to help her, used the power of visualisation in lots of different ways. A project that really stood out was when she was tasked with facilitating the updating of the undergraduate Dentist programme. On a large, human size piece of paper, she drew out the different years of the 5 year programme and colour coded the different activities that the students engaged in. At a glance, you could clearly see that there was a lack of practical experience on patients in the early and latter stages of the programme, reiterating comments from student feedback. She used these visuals as a focal point for several focus groups with academic staff and was able to create a consensus around the need for change.

In my own department, a simple whiteboard which lists the tasks that we have on at the moment, what stage of the course development process any one project is at, and actions outstanding, ensures that things aren’t forgotten about and that work can continue when I’m not there.

To some extent, it can be said that the massive advances in IT have led to a move away from the whiteboards and pin boards of the past – this is a great shame when we know that many heads working together on a problem are often better than one. We must seek to create a visual dialogue with our staff so that a better flow of work can be encouraged, so that we can tell normal from abnormal and so that we can identify problems and change for the better. If teams are remote, then why not use the enormous connecting power of IT to share visuals interactively?

Think about your own working environments… can you enter a room and instantly know what people are working on and how they are doing? Can you get a sense of how they are connected to other departments and is it clear how they are working on projects to progress towards their organisation’s strategy? Can you, at the press of a button, gauge how effectively a process is working? If work is just happening in people’s heads and within a hard drive, perhaps it’s time to get that work out in the open and see the power that visualisation can play within the success of your business.