I was talking with Joe from National Taxi Limo this morning. National Taxi Limo is a new personal transportation service, and they are in the process of getting their business up and running. App, website, phone service, and the general day-to-day processes that they will use to make sure that they are satisfying their customers and fulfilling their purpose of “Every Ride. On Time. Every Time. Working Together.”

This morning, Joe and I were discussing how he was setting up the phone system in a way that would allow customers to easily book rides, make changes if necessary and get the information that they needed quickly, and easily – with a personal touch. As we talked through a number of possibilities, Joe explained that with four lines, he wanted to find a way for anyone who was answering the phone to be able to easily ‘see’ what the customer wanted – even before they picked up the phone. If the dispatcher could ‘see’ what the call was about before they answered it, Joe said, they would be able to prioritize which call to answer first. And, he went on, that prioritization needed to be from the customer’s point of view. Joe knows that his customers value on time pick up most, and that in order for every ride to be on time, every time, it would be most important for dispatchers to know if there was a change to an already booked ride: for example, if a customer got on an earlier flight and would be arriving two hours earlier than expected. Next in priority would be customers calling to book a ride. So, what Joe, (with some help from his telecom guy Jeff), decided to do was to associate an alphabet letter with different categories of phone calls. When a customer called, if they reached the phone system, that alphabet letter would display beside their phone number on the caller ID for the dispatcher. For example: “C” for “Change Reservation”, “F” for “Flier”: a customer who needed a ride to the airport, and “I” for a customer who had a general information question. If multiple lines rang at once, the dispatcher would be able to easily ‘see’ which call was the most important to answer and service first so that customers would be “on time, every time.” As well, by using the letters, the phone system would be able to capture which type of calls came in most frequently. They’d be able to use that data to ‘see’ and understand what their customers called about most.

What Joe was doing, in lean terms, was setting up a ‘visual management’ system: a system that allows us to ‘see’ the things that are the most important to ‘do’ so that our customers are satisfied. As people, we are highly dependent on our sense of sight. In fact, vision is our most dominant sense. So, making the things that are most important from our customer’s point of view visible (picking up passengers and getting them where they are going on time, every time – in National Taxi Limo’s case) is extremely helpful. We all know the saying, “out of sight, out of mind”… if we don’t ‘see’ it, we might not remember to ‘do’ it…

And that’s the most important, and most misunderstood thing about visual management, in my opinion. Just because something is made visible, doesn’t mean it’s ‘visual management’. We need the ‘management’ part of the phrase too: and ‘management’ means that we DO something with what we are SEEING so that our customers’ needs are taken care of. For example, if a calendar is posted with dates that employees are going to be absent, it might be a kind of visual management – or not. It depends on how it is used. If managers use the calendar to make staffing decisions based on number of employees needed to satisfy customers, and if employees use the calendar to re-distribute work to make sure that all customers are taken care, of, then it’s being used as visual management. If the calendar is posted for informational purposes only, so that people know who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’, it’s not visual management – it’s just a “billboard”.

No matter what type of service organization you have, making sure that everyone can easily ‘see’ what needs to be ‘done’ to satisfy customers is extremely important. Making sure that the work is DONE to satisfy those customers is even more important! Setting up simple visual management systems is one great way to make sure that the work customers need us to get done, gets done, so that, like National Taxi Limo, you fulfill our organization’s purpose.

As Joe says about visual management, “Now you see it…now you DO it!”