Archive for June, 2010

Visual Controls 102–Build on the Basics for big Payback

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Nearly everyone is familiar with the concept of visual controls.  A trip to the local grocery store will enlighten us.  Starting with the parking lot, there may be Enter and Exit signs, parking space striping and directional arrows.  Inside we will find shelves that hold standard quantities of designated items and hang tags in the bread section that tell the stocker it’s time to reorder.  At the check outs we find lights to indicate which registers are open and dividers to place on the conveyor between our items and those of other shoppers.  The stockers know when to retrieve carts from the parking lot by looking at the remaining rows of available carts at the front of the store.  When they replenish the shelves, they know how much product to bring out because an empty shelf represents a standard quantity.

We apply these principles at home, in the office and in the manufacturing plant to varying degrees because they have become part of the culture.  This standard way of using visual signals to maintain order is what I call Visual Controls 101.  It empowers us to manage operations without complicated analysis and time lags in information flow.  The use of visual controls is a key component of lean manufacturing.

Unless you already have a serious and ongoing Visual Controls effort underway, you can probably benefit from a coordinated effort to simplify every function of your operation through the use of Visual Controls.  I am always amazed at the level of resources manufacturers commit to improving cycle time compared with the small effort they make to improve the logistical tasks of production.  In fact, more often than not, when I evaluate an operation for simple ways to reduce cost or improve throughput, the prime targets are work flow, material control, access to tools, supplies and information, and similar logistics issues.

You can make significant improvements in your operation with little or no expense by spending a few minutes every day observing activities and asking questions.  To do your own evaluation and begin your journey to the next level, Visual Controls 102, start by standing in a spot (or spots) where you can see most of the manufacturing operation and ask yourself these questions:

  • Can the technician on each operation see his/her work in process?  Is the WIP quantity correct?  How many more need to be produced?
  • Is every operation that is scheduled running?
  • Can you tell by looking, why a scheduled operation is down?
  • Is all of the tooling, information etc. available for the next job?
  • Are all of the components, in the correct quantity, available for this assembly?
  • From ten feet away can you tell if the correct product is stored at each inventory location?
  • Is the quantity in inventory over or under a requirement?
  • Are all of the hand tools, supplies and information required for the operation available nearby?  Are there unnecessary or redundant tools & supplies there?
  • Can you associate all raw materials or work in process with the correct job?
  • Which containers are empty and which are full?
  • Is anybody waiting for something?  Is anybody searching for something?
  • Are there any “orphan” materials in the area i.e. unknown quality, unknown need, leftovers?

If you cannot answer each of these questions from where you stand, or if the answer is not acceptable, you may have found a need for visual controls.  As you discover opportunities for improvement, ask yourself these questions to find simple solutions:

  • Can we add information to the system in the form of process sheets, status boards or lights, floor & wall markings, color coding?
  • Can we simplify and define the process flow?
  • Can we add or remove containers, carts, etc.?
  • Can we label shelves, containers, locations?
  • Can we visually show where things belong (or not)?
  • Can we use container or shelf size/number to control production and inventory quantities?
  • Can we stage tooling and kit components?

You may be surprised to find that no matter how often you do this, you can still discover new opportunities.  Throughput will improve at each iteration as you reduce wait time, eliminate wasted motion, avoid communication errors and scrap, and prevent over/under production.  The exposed rocks analogy describes this situation.  As you lower the water level in the stream by improving throughput, you expose the biggest rocks (opportunities).  Each time you make an improvement, the water level falls and new rocks are exposed. 

These concepts can be applied to job shops as well as mass production operations.  I have successfully applied the principles to very small lots produced a few times a year as well as high volume situations.  In fact, the smaller order sizes are often overlooked when developing visual controls.

If the production process has been studied and optimized, don’t forget the front end and back end.  The steps outside of direct manufacturing can also benefit from visual controls.  Look at set up, estimating, scheduling, shipping, packaging, and any other task required to complete the order.

Remember, continuous improvement, by definition, is something that happens all the time.  By keeping the focus on the small, inexpensive, process improvements you will create a culture that is prepared for transformational change when and if it is warranted.

That’s Manufacturing Made Easy.

Your Comments are always welcome.

Bill MacDonald     is an experienced Operations Manager/Technical Director and owner at

 JLS Consulting of Midland, Michigan. 

For more information visit our web site www.MFGmadeEZ.com or Email .