COVID-19 Remote Working – The Importance of Good Visual Management

The UK has entered its third national lockdown in an attempt to bring the new, faster-spreading strain of coronavirus under control; this means many more people are back to working from home. It may be that you never even got the chance to return to the office after the initial lockdown last March! Regardless, remote working is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  

The absence of good, visual management can lead to misaligned priorities; meaning people work on the wrong things in the wrong order, and when this happens you will lose capacity. This is as true for people working on projects (designs, development, software, etc.) as it is true for people working on the shopfloor and in production. However, now that people occupying jobs in Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Human Resources, Customer Service and Finance have found themselves back working from home, remote working requires even stronger visual management.  

When capacity is not optimised, the output drops. When the output drops, you get longer lead-times and late deliveries. This all stems from mis-aligned priorities. So, the first thing you must do is align your priorities. When everybody is working on the top-priority task, the most important work is completed a lot faster. So, especially now with remote working, it is vital to have a visual management system which is available to all resources. This is so that this faster lead-time can be maintained despite everyone working from different locations. 

The job of management is to know when to intervene and, sometimes more importantly, when not to intervene. The second role that a good visual management system must perform is to be able to easily identify when things are behind, ahead or on-schedule, and whether jobs are blocked or not. For example, everything might have been on schedule yesterday but today somebody has been presented with an obstacle which is blocking their progress, as a manager you need to be aware that this job has been blocked and they may now be in danger of delivering late. A good visual management system will therefore highlight key areas where managers need to direct their attention.  

It is equally important not to highlight the things that do not require a manager’s attention. It is important that managers do not get involved in activities which only distract from the areas that management support is truly needed.  

This brings us back to priorities. Priorities need to be aligned among management and employees. If there are two pieces of work requiring a manager’s attention, everyone needs to know which task wins. The same thing is true for resources, if a resource has two jobs, they always need to know which one is the most important. So, good visual management means knowing how the system is performing and being aware of which jobs need fixing/progressing first.  

Having good visibility over your business can also give you an opportunity with your customers. The value of a well-run visual management system is that everybody has the confidence to know where every piece of work is and how it’s performing. Many of our clients choose to share some of that visibility with their customers – to give them confidence that their order is in good hands and progressing nicely. It can also offer them a reliable prediction of when they are likely to receive their goods and services. A service which can be very valuable. 

There are other, softer considerations too. Remote team working is difficult for morale at the best of times, but when priorities are mis-aligned it can easily cause working relationships between colleagues and departments to become strained and deteriorate. This easily morphs into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality between people, teams or departments. At the heart of disharmony within a business or team is poor communication creating a divide between people. The way to bridge this divide is to have common visibility over how everyone’s parts fit together to complete the whole. For example, your company may turn raw materials into goods, goods into sales, sales into money. Or maybe your company takes requests for help and turns them into tickets, the tickets turn into solutions, and the solutions into customer service. Whatever a company does, it is the flow of those things that we, as employees, take part in. When we are not clear on what our part in the puzzle is, and equally what the neighbouring department/team’s part is, it can lead to feelings of resentment. When we don’t know what our colleagues are doing, we might think that ‘they’re having an easy time of it’, ‘they’re not pulling their weight’ or ‘they keep throwing XYZ over the fence to us!’. Visual management has the power to pull people together with a common visibility of what’s going on and how it all fits together.  

The results you can expect from good visual management are: more ownership of the goods/services flowing through your organisation, more investment from staff and increased interest in how we are all doing, and a clearer understanding of how people and departments feed each other through the organisation. This will naturally increase morale, which is difficult when we can’t see each other and have a catch-up at the coffee machine! 

So, the mark of good visual management is a system which aligns priorities amongst everybody – even when working remotely. It should synchronise management and direct management’s attention to the right areas. It should give confidence about where work lies in the organisation and when it is likely to be finished – maybe you could even share that confidence with your customers. Finally, it should improve the investment felt by employees and boost morale amongst all the teams. 

If any of these topics are not at the levels where you would like them to be, get in touch at [email protected]  

By Phil Snelgrove, Lauren Wiles