The Visible Management System

A tool to enhance improvement implementation and deployment

by D. Scott Sink

Establishing effective improvement cycles--such as Deming's plan, do, study, act (PDSA)--is the key to success for major improvement efforts. Generating an efficient cycle requires getting people at all levels of the organization connected and committed to improvement and encouraging their participation in improvement activities.

People naturally feel more enthusiastic about improvement when they can see the relationship between their plans and actions and the company's performance. Helping employees understand this relationship requires more effective information sharing than is typical, but this step is critical to successful study and act endeavors. Linking the plan and do steps of the cycle to the study and act steps calls for effective measurement systems.

In a visible management system (VMS), measurement is the link between plan, do and study, act. A VMS portrays plans and actions and shows, through measurement, how well the organization is operating. It helps employees study the relationships between improvement-oriented actions and performance. It can also have a powerful, motivational impact as people work toward successfully deploying improvement cycles.1

Portrayal devices

Performance information can be made visible through portrayal devices such as visibility boards (bulletin boards converted to display measurements), end-of-period updates, scorecards and chartbooks. Chartbooks contain the plan for improvement, measures of performance, progress and performance updates, and an executive summary of how the problematic system is performing and why. Many teams have access to this information; however, it is not often brought together in an integrated manner. A VMS combines these data and utilizes them effectively.

The visibility board

A VMS can be found in a visibility board. This is essentially a Gantt chart displayed on a large (6 to 8 foot tall by 20 to 40 foot long) board. The far right side of the board displays the vision--the way things should be. The far left side of the board portrays the current situation--the way things are. The middle of the board represents the work plan. Rows on the chart identify the work or projects of the improvement team and the columns represent points in time.

The bottom row presents key performance indicators (KPIs) for key result areas in a scorecard or instrument panel format. The bottom left corner portrays current performance levels on current performance indicators. The bottom right corner offers future, desired performance levels on current and future performance indicators. Note that what is measured and how well the organization is performing may need to be changed.

This juxtaposition--the portrayal of the plan and do with the visible measurement system and results--creates the opportunity for learning and motivation. The wall allows staff to study the entire improvement strategy over a period of time. Team members learn how to formulate hypotheses about cause-and-effect relationships and test them using measurement. This is a subtle process that can assist greatly in effective implementation and deployment.

Study sessions

The study process is weak in most organizations. Statistical thinking is not common because longitudinal data and portrayal flaws just don't exist. Further, the ability to dialogue--to explore data and question assumptions without defensiveness--is usually not well-developed. Visible management systems can be used in conjunction with visible measurement systems to spark an environment within which more effective study can take place.

Prior to a study session, ask each member of the leadership or management team to study the chartbook and describe how he or she feels the improvement process is progressing. Ask participants to support their answers with data and applicable KPIs. Find out if the chartbook is missing data or facts, contains useless information or inaccurately reflects certain data. The intention is to promote learning about using chartbooks and balanced scorecards within an improvement cycle process.

Tools such as ladder of inference, left-hand column and inquiry from Senge's The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook2 and Dance of Change3 are useful in helping individuals carry out the study step in the PDSA cycle. In order to establish these habits, be sure to schedule study sessions frequently and early in the study phase.


1. D. Scott Sink and W. T. Morris, By What Method (Norcross, GA: IEMP, 1995).

2. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

3. Peter Senge, Dance of Change (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

D. SCOTT SINK is president of QPM Inc. in Moneta, VA. He earned his doctorate in industrial and systems engineering from Ohio State University-Columbus. Sink is an ASQ member.

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