When I was at Toyota we called visual management the “visual factory.” I never really heard visual control or visual management (or it was just another way of saying what we did) until after I left Toyota. It didn’t really matter what we called it as long as we understood what it meant.
I think maybe the term “control” was a bit offensive to people and it was softened to visual management (and the term factory was abandoned when we moved into offices and service industries without factories). Sometimes people call it visual workplace, or visual awareness as well.
We all know that humans are very visual creatures and that the majority of our sensory input comes through our eyes, so making things visually understandable makes sense. But the reason for any of it is to support the process of problem solving (unless you want to beautify the workplace with paint!).
If I paraphrase what my trainers told me over and over they said; “All we do is solve problems. We are either trying to identify problems, analyze to find causes, identify countermeasures, or sustain processes at a standard level.”
I agree with Tracey that it is a bit of semantics, but if you think about using visual means to help identify when a deviation from a standard occurs (identify a problem), or for sustaining something the way it is supposed to be (the standard), that is what is necessary.
Some things like process performance boards allow you to track actual outcome to a standard to see how the process is performing over the long-term. They are about knowing when to take on a problem solving activity (when a process is consistently out of standard).
Visual things are not really effective as countermeasures in my opinion. People often think that if they put up a sign or notification they are “solving” a problem, but they are not really effective and if there are too many “visual indicators” they become “visual noise” and are ineffective. (I always think about the song with the verse “Signs, signs, everywhere signs. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?”)
The specific translation which Jon mentioned is important to understand. I think “visual control” is a means to keep processes at a desired level (aka SPC). In some cases a process performs at a standard level and the main objective is to control things at that level (or between two control limits).
My trainers referred to Kanban as a visual control tool. In other words it is a visual means of maintaining a process at a certain level, and it is easy to determine the status by looking. (They also called it a tool for continuous improvement.)
Another key point is that people need constant feedback regarding performance. The Toyota system is designed to provide constant and immediate feedback. Every team member knew how they were performing at all times. There were indicators (visual and auditory) letting the team member know if they were maintaining the pace (work delay or andon cord). Problems were found quickly and tracked to the source so everyone knew if their work performance was acceptable.
Many of the visual elements are designed to provide performance feedback to the person performing the work. As I mentioned some are for a longer term view, and some are meant to be immediate. The immediate indicators also help to control a process at a standard level.
If people would simply answer the question; “What am I trying to do with this (visual) thing?” they would be able to think about whether it will really do what they are trying to do. I think people see visual whatever as a standard answer and just stick things out there but do not really consider what they are trying to achieve.
For example this week I saw the typical “safety man” diagram that indicates the proper personal protective equipment required on a job. Good idea right? Sure. But a good idea poorly executed will still deliver a poor result. The thing is all the signs were posted at the “gemba” board and not where the work was performed! There were about 7 jobs posted and all had a bit different requirement so it would not be possible for someone wanting to ensure the standard to actual. I had trouble remembering specifically what went with which job as soon as I left the board!
And not to be critical, but to help improve what we are trying to communicate I would add this- every sign listed the STANDARD equipment required for ALL jobs. If everyone has to wear safety glasses why bother to list those items when there are SPECIFIC things required for a certain job (and these were really injury prevention devices that were required).
People don’t need a reminder for safety glasses if EVERYONE is required to have them. This brings to mind another challenge. People put out too many visual standards and then the crucial ones get lost in all the other stuff. This is a classic case of the critical few pieces of information getting buried in the minutia.
Identifying standards and making them visual is a very important task and requires active thinking. We don’t make it visual because it is a “good idea.” We make it visual because it matters! Go and see for yourself and consider whether you have gone overboard making things “visual.” Consider your purpose and intention and ask yourself whether it is in fact achieving that. If so great. If not try again.