I am a great fan of the Harvard Business Review. Their articles are usually bang on the button and right up to date. This particular article on visual systems is no exception, although I have to say that in this instance we have beaten them to it.
At E Squared we have believed for a long time that visual, ergonomic systems are the way forward for business improvement. That belief has driven our own product development over the past 7 years and led to the Isoma system which we have today.
At the centre of this belief is that tricky thing: the human being. The issue to which the HBR alludes and that which we at E Squared deal with every day - is how best to interact with people when designing enterprise software. Should they be avoided or engaged?
Avoidance is the prerogative of automated systems which focus on the management of drudgery through background workflows that run hidden in our computers. These are very common and run everything from our intranets to our Enterprise Resource Planning systems.
Engagement is the prerogative of specialist systems which work above the automation layer and effective engagement through these depends on their ability to add new value beyond that which automation can supply.
Visualisation applies to both approaches; but in very different forms. Where the strategy is human avoidance through system automation, processes need only be visible to the system architects and programmers that write its software. The format and language used for that visualisation needs to be appropriate for that specialist use. But processes that require direct human action need to be communicated using an entirely different visual language - one that anyone without particular specialism can easily follow. Done well, such visualisation enables the knowledge that is in employees' heads to be captured, communicated and structured into readily-understandable processes which other human beings can use to improve their own and others' performance. Done poorly and no-one is any the wiser: confusion, inconsistency and possibly chaos will continue to reign.
Understanding this critical difference and its practical application is the key to achieving the higher level of performance to which HBR refers.
Just like an athlete, a fit company finds ways to make its processes visible so that it can assess safety, velocity, and quality — and then align people around the commonly understood goals, to make the necessary adjustments, in real time, and move to a higher level of performance.