What is the big difference between visual and lean? Answering that question will bring us closer to understanding our premise for the short series I began in Issue 23 of The Visual Thinker (May 27), with the article: Lean Alone Is Not Enough. But first we must raise the question under the one I just asked: Why is an answer important?

The core difference between visual and lean is the medium each targets. Visual pursues imbedded information and, therefore, adherence. Effectively implemented, the result of visual is stability—and stability creates reliability and repeatability (with a straight arrow pathway to sustainability). I rush to add that visuality produces stability even in low-volume/high-complexity production—in fact, especially there. Lean targets pull along the critical path. Lean, therefore, targets time—and its corollary, speed. The combination of the visual and lean—imbedded information and imbedded time—provides the enterprise with a powerful platform for growth. Because visual and lean are both waste reduction strategies, in combination they become a powerhouse for any company’s pursuit of operational excellence: the visual-lean® alliance.

Knowing why and how visual and lean are different allows us to use each effectively. Said another way, lean cannot produce success in certain work settings, but visuality can. The premier case in point is: low-volume/high-complexity work environments. On the extreme end, for example, the ultra-high complexity of a NASA rocket build. More reachably, the overhaul-and-repair venue at Parker-Hannifin—or at the military depots that support the war effort. Their job: repair, refurbish and upgrade used and often damaged war equipment so it can be redeployed (the ultimate recycling endeavor). Components flow out before they flow back in.

If you accept my premise that lean targets time, the pursuit of operational excellence through lean faces an immediate challenge in depots. Time moves slowly there, too slowly to be applied
as an improvement lever. Pull along the critical path is all but undefinable in complex, low-volume workplaces. Granted, you can apply some lean elements—traditional 5S, the pull of commodity parts, scheduling boards, standard work, and this and that. But you can never achieve the speed that lean promises and requires because time is not an improvement ally. In slo-mo settings, time is and always shall be the enemy. Even reliability is elusive.

The short of it? Lean is not an effective starting point for operational transformation in the depot environment. By contrast, visuality is. The absence of time as a lever is not a problem for the visual workplace—because visuality does not link with time to achieve its outcomes. Visuality links with information—the minutiae of customer specifications, the detail of your SOPs, the telling specifics of the transactional landscape (purchase orders, scheduling, location, placement). In other words, the informational landscape of performance. When the information in the performance landscape is accurate, complete, and timely, flow happens. Remember please Taiichi Ohno’s stipulation: Flow where you can; pull where you must.

Flow trumps pull every time. Flow can happen through an effective implementation of workplace visuality—even when pull cannot. But flow cannot happen without visual information sharing: the visual where, the visual what, the visual who, the visual when, the visual how many (or how long), and the visual how. Let the workplace speak. (See my May 13 article on these six core questions.)

In last week’s issue of The Visual Thinker, I referenced the required partnership between information and the physical workplace. They are natural and needed partners. Further, I stated that lean, with standard work as organizer, does a remarkable job in identifying and shrinking flow distance and flow time, namely the value stream. But if that information is not physically imbedded, the stream of value unravels. In fact, without visual logic, the stream of value can be only be partly identified in the first place.

The purpose of visuality is to imbed the gross and minute details of your operational system into the living landscape of work—because those details are the work. They are performance. This is bedrock. Hidden in plain sight, visual information sharing is the platform on which lean happens. But when lean cannot happen (because of the absence of time as a lever, as in the depot environment), visuality can and will bring about high levels of operational transformation—and sustain it.

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