The Problem With Visual Controls for Leaders

For nearly 25 years, I have advocated for the concept of visual controls used in the shop or office to be applied to leadership development. Much like a checklist or leader standardized work, I view visual controls — combinations of key images and words (more of the former than the latter) — as an important way to develop leaders and help assure consistent daily leadership practice. And leaders can use the visual controls as a tool to train people who report to them. Visual controls have been constant features of my Lean leadership teaching and training (see previous blog posts and examples of visual controls here, here, here, and here).

My former undergraduate and graduate students found visual controls very helpful, whether as a creative end-of-term assignment, poster-style or handmade, or the visual control that I created and gave to them at the end of the semester, as shown below. Often, students would post the visual control in the cubicle for reference. When people stopped by their cubicle, they would ask what that was. The student would explain it to the visitor, thus staying in touch with the teachings of the course years or decades later! The visual control serves as a constant reminder of what to do or not do.

Emiliani 2015 Graduate Student Leadership Course Visual Control

But when it comes to Lean leadership training for corporate leaders, there is a big problem: Most leaders (8 or 9 out of 10) won’t use them, from supervisor to CEO. Why is that?

I remember one corporate Lean training program that I led many years ago. The president was strongly committed to Lean management and so were his direct reports. The training was very well received. At the end of the training I passed out a one page, two sided visual control that contained a collection of images and words of key things for the leaders to remember and do every day. (See the images below. Note, that unlike the training participants, you have not received the explanatory context of the visual controls). I advised them to keep the visual control with them at all times, as that would help them both recognize and solve problems. And that they could use it to help train people on their team.

Emiliani 2007 Corporate Lean Leadership Training Visual Control

About three months later I was called back for a follow-up meeting to discuss a problem. After briefly discussing the problem, I pulled out a copy of the visual control that I had given them. I asked the 10 leaders around the table if they had their copy with them. No one did, not even the president. I asked, why not? They literally had no answer.

Years later, at the conclusion of Lean leadership training at a global biotech tech company, I handed out the visual control and asked the leaders a simple question: “Can you support each other in the use of the visual control.” The top leader loved that question and reiterated it. Remarkably, there was silence. I took the silence to mean that the leadership team was unsupportive of one another, likely with or without the visual control as a point of interest. The leader then said he would address this later in private meetings, and the training was adjourned.

We know leaders are too busy. They suffer from task overload and information overload. Yet the purpose of the visual control is multi-fold:

  • Simplify the job of leadership
  • Reduce task and information overload
  • Help leaders recognize problems and solve problems proactively and more easily
  • Help train people on their team

So why do most leaders, from supervisor to CEO, think a visual control designed for them cannot be helpful? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The visual control seems to be too simple to be useful
  • The visual control itself is too busy or confusing
  • Leaders are too busy to use it
  • Leaders forget to use it
  • Do not see the benefit of using it
  • Leaders lack the necessary personal discipline, and artifact of spending years working in organizations that have been classically managed
  • Leaders have difficulty correlating the visual control to what is going on
  • Do not see the visual control as a useful countermeasure to any problem
  • Using the visual control makes one look odd compared to other leaders
  • Unwillingness to develop the daily habit to use it
  • Lack of peer engagement or support (no role model)
  • Not bought into the visual control because they did not create it (lack of ownership)
  • Leaders are overconfident and think they already know what is contained in the visual control
  • Leaders do not want to look stupid using it; i.e. referring to the visual control in from of subordinates, peers, or bosses
  • Using the visual control is beneath them; it is not congruent with their status or perceived capabilities
  • The ever-present undercurrent of classical management precludes its thoughtful use.
  • Leaders reserve the right to do or not do as they please

Is it time to give up? If you know me, you know that I am persistent. I still think these visual controls can be useful for Lean leadership development, to help achieve consistent daily leadership practice, and as a tool that leaders can use to train their team. (Note that the leadership visual controls have been continuously improved over the years. They vary widely, and current versions look nothing like the ones shown in this post).

We talk endlessly about learning from failure. And we talk about how failure is not failure, but merely another step toward improvement. What can we learn from this persistent failure with leadership visual controls? What do you think is going on? And what can be done to improve?

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