Visual management can help your agency deliver better service. Combining performance management, human resources management, organization design principles, and fine arts shapes your environment to positively influence your employees and improve overall performance.
Take a moment to look around at your workspace. What do you see? Unless you’re at the Pentagon, you likely see a typical government office with people situated in workspaces that are bland, uninspiring, not particularly functional, and rather non-descript. There are probably few, if any, references to the organization’s customers, mission, or history. There are probably no more than one or two areas that celebrate the work of the employees. Finally, it’s likely that very little performance data, at either the group or individual level, is posted throughout the organization.
There may be pictures hung up on the walls in the work areas or the hallways. They may be of flowers, landscapes, or the local area, or exhort the value of teamwork. All told, no one pays much attention to them. Most people are not particularly proud of their work area and rarely—if ever—bring family members around to show off their office.
Does this sound harsh? Perhaps, but this is what I’ve seen during my career as a federal employee and consultant to the government. Given limited budgets, frequent changes of direction, typical government bureaucracy, and other challenges, the workspace ambience is a low priority. It rarely inspires anyone, shares information, shapes the outside world’s view that the agency is doing well, or promotes improved performance. That is where visual management can help you.
Imagine Inspiration From Your Work Space
Imagine working in an organization where the space is designed to support integration and alignment of organizational systems; that helps people feel, see, hear, and touch your mission, vision, and values. It is a space that makes employees feel proud and inspired to improve performance; it highlights key information in ways that cannot be ignored; it simplifies and improves the way information and results are delivered; it keeps people focused on the real mission and goals of the organization; it highlights organizational purpose; it clarifies the core work of the organization; it focuses attention on performance
, and addresses performance issues at many levels; and makes the work more meaningful and fun! That is what visual management can do and has done in a number of government and non-government settings.
How Does Visual Management Work?
Visual management is a system of management that combines generally accepted organizational system design, human resource management, and performance management principles with the fine arts to improve overall performance.
Visual management accomplishes its objectives using a holistic, whole-brain, and systemic approach to help organizations improve and be viewed in a positive light. It does this by translating critical organizational requirements into visual stimuli, thereby:
- creating an environment that enhances employee commitment to the success of the organization by ensuring that the work environment and culture directly connects them to and supports the mission and values of that organization;
- presenting key data and information through use of compelling sensory messages that reinforce what is important to the organization;
- addressing performance issues and keeping people focused on the real mission and goals of the organization; and
- providing a mechanism for continuous improvement through system alignment, goal clarification, and engagement of people in the process, and improved communication and information sharing throughout the organization.
The Origins of Visual Management
The manufacturing field often uses the term visual management to describe the Japanese 5S principles to lean manufacturing. It originated within Toyota. One of the guiding principles of 5S is that disorganized and cluttered physical plants are simply not productive. Today, many manufacturing companies use a form of visual management to transmit high volumes of real-time process information. Plant managers often post work instructions in production areas using a variety of elements to help reduce production errors. Also known as “the visual factory,” information is delivered to help production teams become as efficient and effective as possible.
The 5S system has been used worldwide, primarily in manufacturing plants, with the goal of creating an effective physical plant that simplifies the work environment, reduces waste, and improves quality and safety. It has been enormously successful in this context.
Beginning Visual Management in Government
Government began to use the concept of visual management at the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Regional Office in Los Angeles (LARO). A VA regional office adjudicates claims for veterans’ benefits and rehabilitates veterans who have an employment disability.
In the mid-1990s, LARO had the lowest customer satisfaction score of 58 regional offices in the country, at 44 percent (the national average was 59 percent.) Moreover, its rate of granting benefits was 50 percent below the national average. Finally, it only rehabilitated 46 veterans in a year. Due to its record of poor performance, its location in a high-cost area, and the perception it had a weak group of employees, many believed the office was unmanageable. Two VA Secretaries actually tried to close it.
As a new director of that office, I realized that unless we could connect our employees to the mission, we would never be able to give good service to veterans. I also recognized that along with changing our culture, we needed to get back to basics. We increased communication, promoted accountability, replaced many of our weakest supervisors and used our budget to help us instead of constrain us.
Changing an organization’s culture is tough. We put together a team of committed employees and volunteers to be champions. This team, also known as our Department of Tortured Geniuses, initially charged me with designing a roadmap.
The roadmap became known as our yellow brick road to success. Almost every employee hung it up in the work area. The roadmap was published in Japan. That is when it dawned on me that visual displays could play a powerful role in the workplace. We were on to something. We recognized that we had to take a holistic and whole-brain approach to setting up our visual displays if we were going to utilize visual management’s true power and realize its potential.
We eventually built displays on each floor using a creative right-brain approach. Displays traced the history of a particular war and the history of the benefit that the floor administered. They contained artifacts from each war (a Huey Helicopter, a U-2 cockpit, a WWII jeep, a cannon); memorabilia from each war (strands of hair from Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, rocks from Normandy, family diaries, and photos); private reflection areas (field hospital, prisoner of war cell, Vietnam veterans’ memorial); and flags, banners, photographs, and patriotic music. We designed all displays to connect the employees to the mission of serving veterans and improve their satisfaction.
We also built numerous displays celebrating the employees (including several exhibitions of the employees in the military), and established a series of informative left brain displays, such as war rooms with group performance, television monitors with rewards information, and bulletin boars with team and unidentified individual performance information on all of the employees.
Integrated across 110,000 square feet, these displays began sending a consistent set of messages throughout the office:
- Veterans are our reason for existing.
- Grant benefits when you can, deny when you must.
- We value the good work of our employees.
- Everyone is entitled to see information.
- We all will be held accountable.
- We are committed to excellent performance.
How did we pay for all this? The redesign of our office was funded almost entirely through unsolicited donations of money, time, and personal items. What we learned is that people want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves, and if you have a good idea, they will enthusiastically contribute their time, energy, personal belongings, and even money to it.
The LARO’s use of visual management brought positive results.
- Our culture changed. People became more focused on carrying out the mission, serving veterans, and granting benefits. They became less cynical and more proud of the organization; and they became more accountable since they saw we were ready, willing, and able to deal with poor employees.
- Customer satisfaction increased by 37 percent, which may be one of the largest, if not the largest, increase of any VA regional office. Moreover, the rate at which benefits were granted increased by 50 percent, and reached the national average, which is exactly where it should have been.
- The number of veterans rehabilitated increased by about 600 percent.
- LARO received the Office of Personnel Management director’s prestigious Performance Incentives Leadership Linked to Achieving Results Award.
Visual Management Begins to Spread
By 2002, LARO’s visual management program was prominently featured in Government Executive, in an article entitled “Seeing is Believing,” and in an article in VA’s Vanguard, “The Transforming Power of ‘Visualizing’ Your Mission.”
As news of the power of visual management began to spread, visitors from both inside and outside of government began coming to the LARO to learn more about visual management. Dennis Kuewa, who had been with LARO during implementation and returned recently as director, is still convinced the veterans’ museum and visual tributes help employees focus on “why we exist.”
Visual management began to take hold in the Veterans Benefits Administration and other offices tried to replicate the concept. The Veterans’ Health Administration started to take notice. For example, VA’s Central California Healthcare System sent several teams to the LARO and established a comprehensive visual management program in its facility, recognizing that it could have an equally impressive impact within healthcare.
In the words of their director, Al Perry, his organization has used “…the concept…to inspire VA patients, visitors and staff through visual images. The images set the stage and establish a tone for superb customer service, pride in work, and honor of military service. The program has steadily grown, becoming bolder and more creative and colorful each year. Staff, patients and visitors speak highly of the very positive effect it has on them!”
During the last 11 years, we have carefully added images of patriotism, military service, superb care, and wellness in the form of photographs, paintings, murals, displays, and flags.
Patients have commented that the visual management program has given them a sense of sanctuary, caring, and deep respect. Staff have commented on the pride it gives them to serve veterans.
Affecting the Interior and Exterior
Has visual management had an impact? With the visually managed tone, esthetic, and level of cleanliness, patients expect respectful, superb care; staff strive daily to provide it. Visual reminders of pride, honor, and service are everywhere, and these values are reinforced by local advertising and replayed by local media who visit.
The impact on overall performance is less certain and more difficult to directly correlate. Visual management has contributed in some degree to higher performance over the years. For example,
- In 2003, two years after beginning the program, VA received Fresno’s prestigious Excellence in Business Award for healthcare.
- Employee satisfaction surveys show scores 100 percent above national VA averages in 16 measured areas, 2006–2009.
- In 2007, VA won the agency’s Diversity Award and Labor Management Award.
- In 2008, staff voted us the fifth best company to work for in central California.
- In 2009, the medical center achieved a ranking of fourth highest among 139 VAs nationwide, based on measured quality, access, and satisfaction.
- In 2010, we won a Carey Award (VA’s equivalent to the Baldrige Award).
Another government agency, Franklin County, Ohio’s, Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health (ADAMH) board successfully used visual management. ADAMH is a government agency that plans, funds; evaluates mental health, alcohol, and drug abuse prevention and treatment services in the county; and then contracts with agencies to provide those services to its community. According to ADAMH,
“Our mission is to improve the well-being of our community by reducing the incidence of mental health problems and eliminating the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Our staff, made of 40 professionals, help ADAMH achieve our strategic results by focusing on its mission & vision for contracting for quality behavioral healthcare services for Franklin County’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2010, ADAMH contracted for $135 million worth of mental health, addiction treatment and prevention services for Franklin County residents.
“Visual reminders of our customers and mission are especially important to ADAMH since we have limited interaction with the customers who receive services at contract agencies. Visual management has become such a large part of our organizational culture and management structure that we have a standing workgroup called visual performance management.
“During the five years of ADAMH’s visual performance management workgroup, staff have been more focused on the consumers that we exist to serve. Our strategic results that are set by the board of trustees are located throughout the building, in the strategic business plan, and on the website and our internal intranet. Our tag line, ‘treatment works: recovery happens,’ is located throughout the building and in outreach materials to the community. Employee recognition is now directed at those extraordinary efforts that directly align with our core values, mission and vision. Our most recent employee survey found that 78 percent of employees believed that the visual performance management initiative directly contributed to their understanding of the ADAMH mission, vision, and core values. Visual management is a vital part of our accountability structure here at ADAMH.”
The above are just a few examples where visual management has made a difference in government. It also has worked well in other arenas. For example, the Brigham Young University football team designed its athletic facility using visual management principles and has performed very well over the past few years.
Visual management is an idea ahead of its time; forward-thinking organizations are using it with great success. With pressure in government to perform better, visual management will give government agencies a competitive edge while making the work environment more inspiring, more effective, and more enjoyable for everyone.
Stewart Liff is president and CEO of a management consulting company. A classically trained artist and former government senior executive, he is author of five books on management. Contact him at email@example.com or visit www.stewartliff.com.