The Best Lean Tool

If you had to choose just one lean method as the best lean tool, what would it be?  Yeah, that’s a hard one because they’re all important, righ2013-10-09 16.36.13t?  But…you can just choose one.  What would it be?

My vote goes to Visual Workplace.

Here’s what I mean by Visual Workplace:  The visual cues, directions, signs, indicators, labels, etc. throughout the organization are such that anyone can tell at a glance whether or not the process they are observing is in control or not.  Visual Factory is the labels that tell you what’s on that shelf.  It’s a shadowboard.  It’s that foam in the tool box drawers that show what tools go where.  In fact, rather than my listing example after example, why not take a few minutes to watch this video that provides a variety of Visual Workplace examples at Fast Cap in Washington.  As you watch, notice that pretty much their whole lean effort is based on Visual Workplace.


Here are the characteristics of Visual Factory:

  1. The workplace and everything in it is organized.
  2. The flow in the workplace makes sense and is designed with ease, smoothness, and consistency in mind.
  3. Work, tasks, and much of the communication is carried out according to standard procedures.
  4. Everything…EVERYTHING!…has a marked and labeled home address.  We know what goes where and how much of it needs to be there.
  5. Visual cues tell me the present status of the process, whether it’s in control or not, and what needs to be done to keep it in control.
  6. Visual cues (in the form of performance measures of various sorts) tell us how well the process is doing what it’s supposed to do.

Most of the other lean tools either depend on or lead directly to Visual Workplace.  5S?  It won’t sustain without the application of Visual Workplace.  Pull scheduling and production?  It’s very foundation is Visual Workplace.  Value stream mapping?  It will inevitably lead to pull scheduling and production which depends on visual workplace.  Operator and leader standard work?  They’re nothing without Visual Workplace.

The only downside of Visual Workplace?  I’ve found it’s surprisingly hard to implement.  Not because the tool itself is difficult; it doesn’t get any easier than putting labels on shelves, right?  So, why is it so hard to get labels put on shelves?  And Visual Workplace doesn’t sustain without lots of ongoing attention and discipline.  (One of my favorite stories is about a plant manager who pointed to his empty tooling shadowboard as evidence that Visual Workplace wasn’t effective.  I asked him if he thought the shadowboard was going to go around the plant and collect his tools for him.)

But just as we saw in the video clip, a lean initiative based on Visual Workplace incorporates all the necessary concepts and approaches of lean manufacturing.