The following is an excerpt from Visual Workplace-Visual Thinking,winner of the 2006 Shingo Research Prize, by Gwendolyn D. Galsworth, Ph.D.

Achieving a lean workplace is a handsome piece of work, and the results-and gains-are equally impressive. Liberated from its former burdens, the company is free to innovate and grow. This is the promise and the actual reality of a lean conversion. What enterprise would not be overjoyed to achieve it?

Yet that self-same enterprise often does not realize-and therefore does not prepare for-the erosion of those gains. Unless specific other steps are systematically undertaken, those hard-won results will deteriorate. It will take a while. Since it took 3 to 5 years to convert the production system over to lean, it can take about that long for the gains to evaporate. But it could take less, even as short as a year. Either way, evaporate they will. The heart aches, and the pocketbook weeps to see it all go away.

The answer is the visual workplace, the language-the vocabulary-of the lean enterprise made visual. Workplace visuality is the sustainment dimension of excellence, the improvement strategy that stabilizes lean gains and keeps them growing.

Ultimately, there is one simple reason why a visual workplace is needed: People have too many questions. Some of these questions are asked. Most of them remain unasked. And when people don't ask the questions, one of two things happens. Either they live without the answers they need and do nothing-or they make stuff up.

With this in mind, a visual workplace is a self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating, and self-improving work environment-where what is supposed to happen does happen, on time, every time, day or night-because of visual solutions. It does this by answering all the questions that anyone has related to work-questions about what is known as well as unknown, questions spoken out loud as well as those on a sub-vocal level, questions that are commonplace as well as those so specialized that others would have never thought to ask such a thing in a million years.

The two most basic questions are: "What do I need to know?" and "What do I need to share?" In other words, what do I need to know that I do not know right now in order to do my work, and what do I know that others need to know in order for them to do their own work-or do it better?

It is these two questions that drive workplace visuality. They make it happen. Once you understand these two questions and get people to apply them, you have practically all the tools you need to achieve a fully functioning visual workplace that is lastingly sustainable.

Both the importance and the simplicity of these questions was driven home to me some years ago by a worker named Hank, whom I met while doing some consulting work early in my career. Hank worked as an assembler for an electronics manufacturer in the Midwest called, shall we say, Acme Corp. I met Hank along with 35 other operators at a training session I conducted for the rollout of workplace visuality. As usual, early in the session, we discussed the two driving questions. I asked everyone to list out some need-to-know questions. Then I asked for volunteers to share their lists.

Hank, who was sitting in the back of the room, responded first. He didn't bother to raise his hand. He simply stood up, and as he rose, he repeated the question over and over: What do I need to know? What do I need to know? His face was getting steadily redder and his voice getting lower and tighter. At full height, Hank leaned forward, rolled his knuckles under and snarled, "What do I need to know!"

"Yikes! What's going on with this guy," I thought, "Do I have a crazy on my hands?" Hank looked as if he would blow at any moment. As the instructor, I ventured forth and drew the fire. "Hey Hank, what do you need to know?"

He growled, "I need to know where my pliers are!" And brought his hand down on the table hard.

My mouth dropped open. My mind raced: all that upset-ness over a pair of pliers? I asked for details. Hank provided it, without missing a beat.

"Listen, I punched in this morning at 6:25 to try to get some stinkin' work done before I had to spend the whole stinkin' morning in this stinkin' class. But I couldn't find my pliers. See? I looked everywhere! I still don't know where they are!"

Ah, that explained things! As with the vast majority of a workforce, people come to work because they want to work, to make a contribution. That was Hank's intention when he punched in. But, to work, or even begin to work, Hank needed his pliers. And, until he had them in hand, he was stymied.

Hank's work requirement was plain and unadorned. He did not need to know the blueprint to the Death Star or the company's secret acquisition plans. Hank simply wanted to know the location of his pliers so he could get about his work. When I saw Hank's actual list later that morning, the pliers question was the only one on it. His vision stopped there. He would have no further questions until that one was addressed.

But more happened with Hank that we can learn from. Let me proceed.

As the group and I discussed the concept of Need-To-Know further, we talked about ways of securing the answers and turning them into visual devices. "In that way," I said, "you never have to ask or answer those particular questions again." Since we were at the very first stage of the journey to visuality, we then talked about 5S+1:Visual Order®-borders, home addresses, and ID labels-the elements required to attain the visual "where" or, as later explained, automatic recoil. The session ended.

A month later I was back on site at Acme, and Hank found me. "Hey, Gwendolyn, guess what happened after you left last time? I tried that border thing you talked about. I decided to put a border on my bench for my pliers. And just as I was doing that, Suzie came over and said, 'Hey, what are you doing, Hank?' I told her I was trying out what you talked about in class. And then Suzie just let it rip. 'You have got to be kidding! You are not actually going to try that, are you? Put lines around your pliers? You can't be serious! That'll never help! That's never worked! Anyway, we tried that a few years ago, and it didn't work. Don't you remember?' She went on and on, Gwendolyn. She just wouldn't let up."

Hank took a deep breath. "So I took a deep breath and said, 'Suzie, I'm gonna do it anyway! I'm gonna give my pliers a home!' Suzie shot back, 'Well you just go right ahead and do that, Hank. But mark my words: Your pliers will not be there in the morning. Oh I won't touch them! I swear I won't!! But they are NOT gonna be there-not in this place! Mark my words!' And she stomped off."

"The next morning, as per usual, I punched at 6:25, went to my bench, and you know what? My pliers weren't there! But guess who was? Yep, Suzie! She was standing there with hands folded across her chest. Before I could say anything, she started in: 'I didn't touch them! I never laid my hands on your pliers! I swear! But, I don't see them, do you? I mean, I told you they wouldn't be here, right! Right?"

Hank hung his head in front of me, but his eyes were still sparkling. "Gwendolyn, the pliers were not there. I knew she had me," he said. "Well, I don't know what possessed me to say what I said next, but I said to her, 'Suzie, you are wrong!' That's what I said.

"Suzie blinked at me a couple of times, put her hands on her hips, leaned in real close to my face and blasted, 'I'm wrong, Hank? How am I wrong, Hank? I mean, I don't see your pliers on your bench! Do you? Hank, do you see your pliers? Because I don't! So how am I wrong?'"

Hank continued. "She had me again. And, she knew it! But, I didn't want to give in. Then BINGO! I got this idea and said, 'Suzie, I will tell you why you are wrong. Yesterday it took me 30 minutes to understand that my pliers were gone, really gone. Today I knew it right away-instantly!'"

"Suzie's mouth dropped open. 'Huh?' was all that came out of it. Then I got this other thought. 'Suzie,' I said. 'Yesterday, there was no "there" there! Today there is!'

"Then the both of us just stood there. I think I was as surprised as she was."

BINGO again! In that short exchange, Hank not only named the true outcome of the process called 5S+1: Visual Order-namely installing the visual "where"-he also demonstrated how the question "What do I need to know?" drives workplace visuality.

[Editor's Note: Gwendolyn Galsworth is president and founder of Quality Methods International Inc. (Portland, OR), a training, consulting and development firm specializing in the technologies of the visual workplace. For more information, or to order a copy of Visual Workplace-Visual Thinking, call 888 550-5449 or visit