Here’s an odd conceptual parallel: We know that the invisible enemy at work is missing information. But the remedy—visual devices—is also largely un-noticed; that is because they are hidden in plain sight. My first encounter with visuality was just like that. The year: 1985. The place: the first study mission I led to Japan. At that time, I knew nothing about improvement, let alone visuality. My background, in sequence, was: a Latin teacher in Northern New Jersey, an actor in NYC, and a token Caucasian waitress at the local Chinese Dragon. There I was, with very fresh eyes, leading a study mission to legendary Japanese plants, Toyota first amongst them. Some things happened on that first trip that are still playing themselves out in my visual workplace thinking. At that time, the field had no name, no logic, no principles, and no methodology.

We were touring a final assembly plant in the Toyota group. I was watching two operators put lug nuts on the tires—one worked the right side of the chassis, the other worked the left. The chassis sat on a moving line, electronically indexed to the impact wrench each operator used to torque the lug nuts—two wheels on each side, five nuts per wheel. When the electronics of the line registered that this operation was completed, at the correct torque on both sides of the car, the line would move. If any step was skipped, forgotten, or done improperly, the line would not move. Quality assurance in action.

As I watched, I saw a strange thing: the operator closest to me (and the only one in my line of sight) would tighten the nuts and then, as the line indexed (which it did without a hitch while I watched), he put his impact wrench into a bucket of pink powder—bright pink powder. How curious, I thought. I also noticed that the pink powder was leaving a trace on the lug nuts. Why? I was spellbound, watching the same operation again and again. Each time the line indexed. Each time the operator put the wrench back in the bucket of pink powder. But why?

Then it hit me. Or should I say, “Then the heavens opened and I heard a chorus of Angels—and saw the flapping of their wings!”

I realized two things. The first was that his use of the pink powder was quite intentional (and brilliant)—because it gave him as surefire way to know that he had tightened all five lug nuts, tire by tire. But the second realization (which came several years later) rendered the pink powder simply dazzling in its usefulness: It allowed the operator to instantly, reliably, and repeatedly know which lug nut he had missed if the line did not index. No inspection was needed. No worries. No struggle. No motion. The pink powder (which would get washed away in the final rinse) was visual information-sharing in action. It let a micro operation in the vast array of Toyota operations speak, and speak in a voice that the operator knew was his own. He understood and took appropriate action accordingly—or knew that further action was not needed. Either way he was independently in control of his corner of the world.

The powder was talking to him, allowing each individual lug nut to share vital information visually. In a manner of speaking, each lug nut became the operator’s temporary supervisor, giving him feedback on his performance, alerting him to quality issues, and helping him to do the very thing he wanted to do: the right thing!

The implications were enormous—in fact, so big, I couldn’t wrap my mind around them. I just knew that something of great importance had just happened right in front of my eyes. I wanted to know more. And I have spent the subsequent 35 years discovering that more—watching, thinking, expressing, defining, articulating, and codifying that HUGE thing that was hidden in plain sight. I called it: The Visual Workplace.

Later I would derive from this pink powder incident visuality’s two prime principles: #1/To tell merely by looking; and #2/To tell the difference merely by looking. We’ll examine those in the next issue of The Visual Thinker. LET THE WORKPLACE SPEAK!

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