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The Visual Workplace

Lower the Height of Shelves and Workstations

Most people around Lean have heard the term ‘visual workplace’. They know that it is the art of making problems leap out at you, and being able to have a process immediately communicate its status to an observer.

One barrier to creating an effective visual workplace is the practice of using tall shelves and workbenches. These structures, in effect, create walls between workers.

The benefits of lower shelves and workstations include:

  1. Easier communication between team members. We talk about teamwork, and then build up a physical barrier between them that makes it impossible to work together.
  2. More effective leadership. Leads and supervisors can watch what is going on their areas much more easily, and can go to help at the first sign of a problem.
  3. Flow is far more observable. The first two sound important to the casual practitioner, but this one is my personal favorite. With work areas that are cordoned off by shelving, it is hard to track how parts and people move. The view of motion is disjointed as people, parts, and products duck in and out of sight.

When a workplace gets its height down, an observer can stand on a staircase at one end of a facility, and watch the choreography of the flow in a factory. It is an eye-opening experience to have an unobstructed view of an operation.

Now, I don’t recommend going out and trying to chop everything down all at once. You likely already have a long list of projects you are working on that will make a more immediate impact.

What I do recommend is that you put a ban on adding anything new that is over chest high to make sure that even the ‘height-impaired’ employees on your team can enjoy the benefit of having a visual workplace.

And with every kaizen you do, try to reduce the height of anything you work on. Sure, it will take a while, but Lean is not an overnight thing. Little by little, you will start to see more of your operation, and you will gain the benefits of having a highly visual workplace.

I’d love to hear any stories from people who have seen the effect of this strategy first-hand.

(This post is one of the items in my article, 17 Lessons I Learned from Japanese Consultants.)


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