How do I keep visual management from becoming “wallpaper?” A Q&A with John Drogosz

How do I keep visual management from becoming “wallpaper?”

Yes, this is an excellent question! Too often, people believe that if you post information, people will automatically engage with it. If it were only that easy. Many managers try to convince everyone (including themselves) that they are visually managing their projects or departments, but during the gemba walk we see static, outdated displays. Are we just communicating information or really working with what is in front of us?

Whether you are running a project using an Obeya or managing a department using a board, here are a few ways to avoid “wall paper” syndrome.

  • Have a clear mission and scope: This seems so obvious, but far too often teams do not explicitly declare the mission of their project or area, nor what aspects of it they need to manage visually (and why). When this is not discussed, we find walls covered with a hodge-podge of everything that is going on in the area and is it difficult to see where the team is now and where they need to be going forward.
  • Team ownership: Visual management is a team sport. The project lead and the manager should not be the only ones posting information and managing the walls. Each team member is a contributor to the success of the team and thus should have some real estate on the walls to manage.
  • Less is more: Team members sometimes get overzealous and want to show everything they are doing. Suggest this to them: “I only want to post what my colleagues need to know that affects them and those items where I need their help.”
  • Dashboard, not cockpit: In today’s data rich world, it’s tempting to post all types of metrics. Unfortunately teams end up with walls that look like the cockpit of a jumbo jet (which is fine if you are an experienced pilot flying a complex machine). In PD, our team members only need key indicators everyone can understand and use to make informed decisions. It’s about making sure the team can see that they are on the right track. Keep it simple like a dashboard on a car.
  • Project and product view: In product development, we are typically managing projects, but more importantly we are creating products. Good visual management provides BOTH the view of the project and the product. Most of the time, teams fixate on the tasks and metrics associated with the project and assume the project measures adequately show that the progress of the product. This is not always the case. By having a view of the product (e.g. rendering, print, SLA part, prototype, etc.) in the area, team members can see for themselves how the product is maturing (or not). Discussions tend to be richer and more issues are surfaced when there is some visualization of the product close by.
  • Tactile: Visual management is not meant to be a spectator sport. Printing some slides, pinning them to a wall and then presenting them is not much different than a passive slide presentation. People should be able to adjust the visuals on the fly to quickly communicate status, changes, and most importantly, flag issues. Good things to use therefore are sticky notes, colored dots, magnets, whiteboards or even better white walls!
  • Actionable: Most items that are visualized should prompt team members to some sort of action, be it to confirm, question, or contest what is on the wall.
  • Quick resolution to issues: Visual management, either Obeya or department level boards, should be the andon system for the PD teams. Issues should be easy to surface, visually seen by all and most importantly need to be followed up with a robust yet rapid PDCA cycle. Many PD teams make their problems visible, but do not rapidly resolve them. If a team member has a hot pink sticky note on their board that has not been resolved in weeks, how long do you think that team member will actively participate in the visual management process? This is typically the most common cause of visual management fizzling out.
  • Flexibility: Product development is an ever changing environment, so the visual management you use needs to easily adapt. Periodically step back and ask yourself and your team members if the visuals and the process are still helping to achieve your mission. Static visual management typically results in team members questioning its real value as it will no longer suit their needs.
  • Regular rituals: Management is clearly an ongoing process. Teams need to set a cadence on what and how often they will cover the elements they are visually managing their activities. People need to make it a regular habit to attend the sessions. (This can be the double edged sword of visualization – it helps bring people together, but it can also allow people to detach from the process as they can get “caught up” by walking the walls whenever it’s convenient for them) If someone is not attending or actively participating, ask why. Likely there is a gap in the visual management process that needs to be addressed.
  • See progress: This is a pitfall many managers fall into. A good practice to keep meetings short and focused is to discuss the gaps (red items), not what is going well or has been completed. And while the focus of visual management is to surface and resolve problems so that teams may achieve their mission, it’s also important that the team see the progress they are making along the way. It is wise for leaders to periodically show through that the team is winning the game and recognize team members’ contributions.

As you can see, the visuals are the relatively easy part; the management involved is an ongoing activity that requires everyone’s participation. Keep it simple, continuously ask team members if they are getting what they need from the process to be successful, and adapt as team members’ needs and conditions change.

Generating Multiple Alternatives is Not Necessarily Waste

I was once asked: “How is set-based design lean? Isn’t designing multiple alternatives creating waste and the opposite of lean?”

This is a logical and reasonable question. It is always important to understand the purpose of a method, so you can hypothesize if it will solve your problem(s). Doing anything without understanding the purpose is waste. And since set-based design often requires an investment in order to shift resources up front in development, its purpose may be questioned even more. This is actually a benefit in disguise as it ensures we understand the purpose better. It is yet another counterintuitive lean method with the answer coming from the perspective you are looking from.

Depending on your perspective, there are many wastes associated with or avoided through learning about multiple alternatives. From just one product within the engineering department you could reasonably think that if you explore multiple alternatives, then all except the one you select will be waste. This is no different than optimizing vertically within a process or function instead of horizontally across the value stream.

The original question comes from a horizontal perspective that if you just select the best alternative before you start then every other alternative is waste. But both of these viewpoints are wishful thinking and happen to directly conflict with the core LPPD principles. They imply that the designer should automatically know which alternative is best, ignore the expensive and time-consuming iterative design changes that almost always occur when a single design is selected early, and will likely result in a sub-optimal design providing less value to the customer. These are all wastes that negatively impact customer value.

At the same time, designing multiple alternatives will indeed generate waste if you are not mindful about what you are learning and trying to create. Value is created in development through the creation of two things:

  1. Profitable operational value streams (product customer values and manufacturing system to produce).
  2. Usable knowledge that enables the creation of profitable operational value streams.

From the perspective of maximizing value in creating a profitable operational value stream, you should be maximizing value for the customer in the product and your ability to produce it. Exploring multiple alternatives paired with quick learning enables faster time to market and more customer value. But this only happens if you evaluate the alternatives from the perspectives of the customer and manufacturing system. If you are evaluating alternatives from different perspectives that the customer doesn’t value you could just be generating more waste.

And then there is the other value created in development – usable knowledge. While multiple alternatives are explored to optimize the product and manufacturing system, what happens to the knowledge created while learning about the alternative designs? If your perspective is just this one product and that knowledge gets discarded, it isn’t a waste.

But if you are looking at a product development system with other current and future products, discarded knowledge is indeed a waste. If you capture knowledge in a difficult-to-access medium that is also waste as it is unlikely to be retrieved for future programs. Whereas, if you capture knowledge in an easily accessible format, such as trade-off curves, you can leverage that knowledge on future projects to create more customer value.

Michael Ballé, Jim Morgan, Durward Sobek featured in MIT’s Sloan Review

Skilled people, not processes or new tools, create great products, according to an article on innovation by Lean Enterprise Institute researchers appearing in the Spring 2016 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. “Why Learning is Central to Sustained Innovation,” by Michael Ballé, James Morgan, and Durward Sobek II, is part of a special report on product development.

For your convenience, we have licensed the article for download for a limited time.

According to the authors, evidence shows that people and people systems are the most important parts of a product development system, because people generate the knowledge necessary for innovation in new products, new manufacturing systems, and more robust supply chains. The authors recommend that companies ask three fundamental questions to improve developers’ skills and capabilities.

The Importance of Embracing Development Conflict

Far too many product development professionals take sides in the (alas, unnecessary) conflict between the unlimited potential of human innovation and the incredible power of good standards. On the one hand, the “free spirits” fear that lean standards limit creativity and lead to painfully boring products. On the other, the “technocrats” are haunted by visions of cost overruns and operational chaos that result from unconstrained imagination run amuck.

Whenever I encounter someone using this limiting form of binary thinking, I remind them that those who can embrace conflict find it to be a huge source of opportunity. And this is definitely the case here.

An effective way to think about this dilemma is to see it not as an either/or problem, but as an “and” opportunity. The “fixed and flexible’ philosophy emerged out of work with my colleagues at Mazda more than a decade ago with significant benefit to both companies. I believe this seemingly simple concept can have profound implications for your development capability.

“Fixed” elements in product development are often expressed through standards that are experienced-based solutions for typical/recurring problems. Or they can be critical, progressive “quality of event” criteria built into the development process in order to help teams determine normal from abnormal conditions during a development project. In both cases, these standards are a powerful mechanism for applying the learning from one project to the next.

Over time, experience and knowledge accumulate, standards are updated and developers are able to make decisions faster and with better quality. These clear criteria (which are captured and communicated to the team) make the ability to learn and apply new knowledge a true competitive advantage in a very real way. Developers do not have to waste time and resources learning things over again. Aligning on the fixed portion of the project is also crucial in understanding and managing the program’s risk profile.

“Flexible” aspects of product development are those in which innovation and creativity add the most customer value through resulting differentiation. They are the very heart of the product’s unique value proposition – the “why” we are doing this project. In this case the high level vision of “what” we are trying to do may be understood but the how is not. Consequently the risk profile and gaps in knowledge are significant in this part of the project and will require substantive innovation.

Fortunately, the fixed elements mentioned above allow developers to focus their energy and creativity where it will provide the greatest possible return in the product. A deep understanding of how this product will deliver value coupled with a compelling vision for the product is essential. It is equally important that the organization is aligned around this vision and that each team member understands how he or she will contribute to achieving success. The Chief Engineer concept paper and related activities are incredibly helpful.

Product and Process Examples

Here are a few straightforward examples of fixed and flexible in product and manufacturing processes from the auto industry. The first one is individual part interface standards for components that are part of a larger system like modules or platforms. Focusing on proven standards only at critical interfaces allows for maximum creativity on the majority of the component design while simultaneously safeguarding critical system performance by fixing a very few key design attributes.

Another example comes from the car front hood assembly. The inner hood, whose function goes largely unnoticed by customers, is created from standard geometry and only modified to fit the specific shape and size application (fixed) while the outer hood which is crucial to vehicle styling and appeal is left largely to the creative direction of the designer (flexible).

Finally, common part locating strategies and basic standard assembly sequences are fixed to create a standard Bill of Process while the majority of the vehicle is designed to deliver its own unique value proposition. This allows the best companies to build eight or more very different vehicles on the same assembly line creating incredible efficiencies and manufacturing flexibility with high degree of quality without resorting to mere “badge differentiation” between products.

I think it is important to emphasize that the fixed portions of design should always be limited to the critical few elements. In this way you can maintain critical to quality, performance and manufacturing requirements while simultaneously enabling innovation.

At Ford, understanding and executing to fixed and flexible aspects of our products and processes helped enable us to deliver some of the most exciting and innovative designs in Ford’s history. Body fit and finish were among the best ever, all while simultaneously reducing investment costs and lead-time and improving product quality.

A more recent example of this is the Toyota New Global Architecture, in which the combination of breakthrough technologies and powerful standards created from decades of experience have led to a 20 percent reduction in resources required for development, lower manufacturing investment costs, and products with dramatically better ride and handling characteristics. It is an important part of what continues to give them the highest profit per vehicle in the industry.

The fixed and flexible concept applies equally well to your development process, management system and organizational strategy. However, the real secret of making the concept work for you lies in understanding what and how value is delivered to your customers and development teams. Ignorance is expensive and wasteful; deep knowledge is key. And don’t forget that creative tension – conflict can indeed be a tremendous opportunity if you know how to leverage it to get the most out of your development system.





Our learning partnership continues to grow. Our latest partner is FMC Technologies, a global leader in undersea oil and gas exploration technology whose products have to function flawlessly at more than 5,000 feet below sea level. After an outstanding kickoff week, we are working with FMC on major projects in Brazil, California and Texas. We think they will be an excellent add to the partnership.

I had the honor of speaking at GE Appliance’s annual Presidents’ Council Summit in Louisville last week. This is an outstanding event that brings together about 160 of the most senior leaders of GE’s top suppliers with GE’s CEO and his leadership team to share their strategies and solicit input on how to better work together to bring ever greater value to their customers. This event is an important part of their strategy to engage suppliers as partners to create an extended lean enterprise.

Congratulations to our friends at LPPDE on a successful conference in the UK last month! I have heard it was an excellent learning opportunity for students of LPPD.

Our next Partner Co-Learning Event will be held at GE Appliance in Louisville later in May. We will see firsthand the role of GE’s path-breaking “First Build” in capturing, understanding and delivering customer-defined value in new products. We are bringing in globally recognized experts John Drogosz and Durward Sobek to help deep-dive trade off curves and set-based innovation and discuss our partners’ experiences with these methods in the real world. We will also share the incredible progress several of our partners have made in building product-differentiating craftsmanship into their products.