Lean Part 8: Visual Systems

Sometimes, the fastest and most effective way to communicate information is by using visual signals. In Lean production practices, visual control, or visual systems, is a technique that employs this very principle, designed to allow quick recognition of information being communicated to increase clarity and efficiency.

The theory behind the technique is that if something is visible, it is easier to recall and sustain as a primary focus. If staff is given the same visual cues and likely the same vantage point, it only helps to keep them on the same wavelength.

Some visual displays in a Lean management system relate information to employees in specific areas that they should be made aware of, while others are intended to direct and guide the actions of the staff. They are signals that provide an immediate understanding of a situation or condition. They are efficient, self-regulating, and worker managed, and include:

  • Schedule, activity, or status boards
  • Color coded files, transactions
  • Signage to direct staff to areas, etc.
  • Kanban cards
  • Color-coded forms, equipment, and trays
  • Lines on the floor to delineate storage areas, walkways, work areas, etc.
  • Andon lights to indicate equipment status
  • Charts or graphics depicting sales, revenue, etc.
  • Delivery and production schedules
  • Out-of-stock and re-order conditions for work in process and finished goods inventory
  • Quality standards
  • Project status
  • Activity and exceptions reports
  • Hazardous material signs, warning signs, etc.
  • Performance/accountability checklists
  • Time reports
  • Activity logs
  • Anomalies and incidents
  • Shift reports
  • Management dashboards


The status of practically every process should be visible in Lean management. Visual controls and the processes surrounding them are the hub in Lean management, like a network of nerve cells bringing focus to the process and encouraging improvement. With that focus, it is easier to compare expected performance to actual performance, highlighting when or where processes are not up to par and where improvement is left wanting. Most importantly, it makes that comparison accessible and easy to comprehend for everyone.

Of course, there are times when computer systems and support resources are needed to properly automate data and track process performance. However, in most cases, asking employees to take a few minutes during their shift to record performance requires far less overhead and increases the level of employees’ involvement in observing, analyzing, and potentially improving the processes with which they work each day. The heightened accountability provides a foundation for a far greater level of employee involvement than could any other reporting system. For Lean to be an effective process improvement system, that kind of synergistic involvement is crucial.

As American businessperson and entrepreneur, Sara Blakely, said: “Having a mental snapshot of where you are, where you are going, and what you are moving toward is incredibly powerful.” What better way is there to sustain that mental snapshot than to see it every day?

For more information on the application of visual controls, please contact Business Development Advisor, Ralph Brown, at 914-393-9876, or ralph.brown@hvtdc.org.