Visual is Always Better or Technology Can be Clueless

Several years ago we worked with an excellent company in North Carolina that makes specialized construction vehicles. Part of their lean management project included the development of a visual planning board to encompass the primary production processes.

There were two principle reasons for having the board. First, there was a good deal of miscommunication between different groups within the company – sales, production, purchasing, shipping, etc. All of these people needed to be working in sync so the company’s products could be manufactured and delivered to the customers on-time and cash could be collected. Secondly, there was the usual personal conflict that crops up when there are misunderstandings and divergent priorities.

Bruce Baggaley, BMA Senior Partner, went to work with the company’s President and the VP’s of Sales, Operations, and Finance, along with their value stream leaders. They developed a simple and effective planning board. The board was a huge hit!!

Immediately, the people found it easy to use and helpful. It required the discipline of a stand-up meeting twice per week and using standard criteria for making priority decisions. Within 3 months the production process was running very smoothly and finished goods had gone to zero in the plant because they were making what they knew they could ship, shipping it, and getting paid.

Planning Board Blog

Last month I visited the company again. First time in about 4 years. And they proudly showed me that the board was not only still in use but continues to be the driving force of their sales and operations processes.

Here’s the irony – or rather the “cautionary tale.”

The VP of Operations from this company has now moved on to another organization in the area and he has been having similar problems of communication and conflict relating to their production processes. So he decided to create a similar board as used in his previous company. This is a great way to “pollinate” good ideas that really work! And, sure enough, the board worked well, except he has people in his value stream who are not physically located near to the board.

To solve this he asked IT to provide him with a webcam so everybody could be included in the stand-up meeting.

IT decided that the board should be “automated”.

They built a scheduler in Oracle ERP, which they then exported to Excel, and then posted it to a Sharepoint site. It cost $5,000 to develop, plus $500 for the Sharepoint connection, and on-going time for his people to enter all the information.

More importantly, it misses the point! The short meeting around the board, with colleagues focused and invested in understanding the information, working together to solve problems and making good decisions for the company is gone! Replaced by a slick “system,” a complicated and technical process that requires people to enter data they could just as easily write down manually.

My friend from the previous company’s comment was “Clueless!”

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not a Luddite. I find myself as interested in the latest gizmo as the next guy, especially if it keeps me from having to lug heavy stuff around in my briefcase from airport to airport! Technology can be extremely helpful. Having a webcam was a great idea. There’s no question that there are some things software can do better than people.

But visual meetings around boards that are updated by hand always produce better results. Because it’s the RESULTS we are after, not the razzle-dazzle. Because the real point is the human interaction and creativity that go into the process.

People who do NOT understand this will look at a handwritten board and say it is rudimentary. But people who have worked effectively with stand-up meetings around the boards recognize that this is much more sophisticated than an ERP system and Sharepoint.