Stranger Theory or Using Visuals to Make Your Workplace Speak

Posted on June 19, 2013 by


From a lean standpoint, stranger theory implies that an organization’s workplace should have visuals that are so clear and easily understood that even a stranger can “go and see” the status of the operations at any given point.   The visual controls used should meet the needs of the operations team and the leadership team in that they provide performance at a glance against key indicators, capture any deviations, provide opportunities for employee feedback and problem solving, and communicate information about the business.  In essence, workplace visual controls support organizational efforts to identify and eliminate waste, identify and implement continuous, incremental improvements, and manage to key performance indicators.

While there are a host of visual controls that organizations can use to help the workplace speak, here are a couple of examples – business communication boards, status boards and andons.

Business Communication Boards

business meeting

Business communication boards are just that…boards that communicate key information about the business. They provide a visual summary of the organization’s performance.  These boards provide leaders the opportunity to engage and educate the workforce regarding key aspects of the business.  By having meetings at the boards, the leader reviews the organization’s performance and is able to teach the team about the business, helping them in turn manage as owners and better understand the impact of their actions on the overall organization.  Key performance indicators such as safety, quality, productivity and profitability are summarized in easily understood charts with bullets to explain the weekly, monthly or quarterly goal and actual performance.

Status At A Glance Boards

Planning Board

Status At A Glance Boards are used to communicate the performance of a particularly department during the course of the business day. Check points are identified throughout the day (usually in 2 hour increments).  The performance of the department is broken down to reflect where the department should be at each of the check points, with green circles or red “x” to reflect status (green circle means the goal was met, red “x” means the goal was missed) and notes to provide further explanation.

Andon Lights


Andon lights provide visuals based on color.  Stop lights are an example, red tells us to stop, yellow proceed with caution and green go. In the workplace, the colors should match what they signal and be easily understood.  For example, red could mean that filming has begun and the set must be quiet.  Yellow would mean that the filming will begin in less than 5 minutes and green would advise that the cameras are off.  Because colors such as red, yellow and green are already ingrained to mean stop, caution and proceed, their use in the workplace should not contradict that otherwise workers will be confused, defeating the purpose.

As a leader, take the opportunity to look at your workplace for opportunities to add visuals that will make things clearer for everyone. Ask the workers what would help them better manage their portion of the business or let them know when they are off course.  Remember, workplace visuals provide an opportunity to engage, teach and manage the operations and should be so simple that even a stranger can “go and see”.