I Wholeheartedly Approve the Violation of this Visual Control


I've had a really nice time during my first 30 hours in Helsinki, Finland. It's been warm (72 F) and sunny — and more than 18 hours of sunlight each day, to boot. I will blog more substantively about my gemba visit to a Helsinki-area hospital yesterday.

But, I've had some really good food (lots of fish, including smoked and cured) and some local beer. Tonight, I had a glass of wine in the hotel restaurant (pictured here) that violated the Lean principle of “visual control” — but I, as the customer, enjoyed that extra ounce or so of wine.

A larger picture, below, shows the etched white line that shows the waiter how much wine is supposed to be poured. Some restaurants, like my local San Antonio pizzeria called “Dough,” use the restaurant logo as a more subtle pour line (one they are usually pretty disciplined about).


From the restaurant owner's perspective, the line is meant to prevent “over pouring,” which from their standpoint is giving the customer too much product for their money. The customer (like me) might view it as value, but the owner might view it as waste and lost profit. This is a recurring theme on the show “Bar Rescue” (as my friend Chad Walters has blogged about at LeanBlitz.net).

Bartenders might view an over pour as something that generates customer loyalty or higher tips (the tipping is not an issue in Finland, as a service charge is included in the price). Owners often view it as “theft.” I imagine some owners might take a long-term perspective that it's better to lose a little bit of profit today (the margins are pretty high on bottled wine, anyway) for a long-term customer relationship (which is probably not a concern in a touristy area like I'm in now).

In the Lean approach, a visual control is something that helps us do our job better or more accurately… or it allows the team and management to see immediately if there is a problem). I'd call it “visual management” if it is a status indicator that somebody uses to take action.

Visual controls might show how much inventory should be stacked on a shelf or when patient flow is really suffering. In a way, a healthcare waiting room (the number of people in it) might be a natural visual indicator of how many patients are waiting. Of course, in some hospitals or clinics, the wait is normal and there's really no management response (such as opening more rooms/bays or bringing in extra staff).

In an office like that of “The World's First Lean Dentist,” Sami Bahri, DDS, seeing ANYBODY in the waiting room would indicate a problem and an unusual situation since his patient flow is normally so good.

In this case, I probably should have taken a quick sip or two to get the wine down to the line, lest anybody get in trouble! When leaders see a problem, they should normally look for a systemic root cause rather than just leaping to blame and/or punish an individual.

What are some visual controls you have incorporated into your workplace?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • Right, unlike traditional “command and control” approaches, I think the term “visual control” is used in the context of “process control” not controlling the people doing the work.

      Yes, the glass was certainly not error proofed.

  1. But… what if the line was put purposely low and they were told to pour above the line – making the customer feel that they were worth going above and beyond for?

    Just a thought.


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