October 11, 2016

Winning The Hearts and Minds Of Your Employees - Part Four

Stewart Liff

Stewart Liff
President-CEO/Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc.

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I briefly touched upon the concept of visual management in my last article, but I want to now discuss this in much more depth, as it can help you send powerful messages to your employees while reinforcing your organization’s direction and culture and ultimately help you win their hearts and minds.

In my experience, organizations rarely use their physical plants to help emotionally connect their employees to the mission and prompt them to take a deep dive into their metrics. Of course, most try and ensure that their employees have nice, professional space that is efficient and well lit. Many invest in framed pictures to hang on their walls in order to make it look more elegant. However, few think in terms of designing their space so that it supports strategically so that it reinforces their mission, vision, values, systems and processes and helps drive overall performance. In addition, they rarely try to use their space to share information, hold their employees accountable and positively influence the outside world’s perception of their organization. Finally, not many realize that a properly designed physical plant (along with the right leadership and culture) can help give the employees a sense of pride in their organization.

What is Visual Management?

Simply put, visual management, is a combination of time-tested organizational systems design, human resources management and performance management principles that are supplemented by the fine and applied arts, in order to help promote the right culture and drive performance. It does this by 1) reinforcing an organization’s key systems and messages, 2) focusing the entire organization on performance, 3) improving its culture by connecting the employees to its history, mission and customers, 4) both celebrating the good work of the employees and holding them accountable, and 5) positively shaping the outside world’s view of the organization. 

Under the approach I am advocating in this article, virtually every organizational design element is made visual in order to ensure they are clear, integrated, consistently applied and constantly in everyone’s face.

Visual management can be used either in a traditional, top-down work environment or in a more modern work design that strives to have teams of leaders. In my view the latter approach is preferable because if it is properly designed and implemented it will produce more engaged and committed employees and better results, but visual management will support either approach.

How Visual Management Began

The concept started at the VA Regional Office (VARO) in Los Angeles in the 1990’s. A VARO is responsible for adjudicating claims for benefits. At the time, the office was viewed as virtually unmanageable for a variety of reasons and it had the lowest rate of granting benefits and the lowest customer satisfaction scores in the nation.

To turn things around, we tried to change the culture by opening up communication with the employees, emphasizing the splendor of the mission, replacing more than half the supervisors, redesigning the systems, focusing on teamwork, emphasizing creativity and accountability (we removed many of our worst employees.) These efforts all helped and we began to see tangible progress.

However, something still seemed to be missing so we also started focusing on the physical plant, which had half the lights turned off since the late 1970’s, had carpets held together with masking tape, walls painted nicotine white and puke green and…you get the point. We started by hanging some photographs depicting the experience of veterans (VA didn’t really do this to much extent at that time) and people became excited in a way I had not seen before. As we started adding more and more displays, they began to see we were serious about our mission and many came forward offering personal artifacts or their services to help transform the space.

We began to realize how powerful a space redesign effort could be if we could relate it directly to the organizational changes we were making (e.g. improving our culture, focusing on the mission, emphasizing performance and accountability, etc.) and reinforce everything we were attempting to accomplish. The idea here was not to make the space look better; it was to use the space to help us work better.

Once this became clear, we redesigned every hallway around a war and the benefits that it administered, built private reflection areas (a bunker, a field hospital, a Vietnam veterans memorial, holographs with the story of Los Angeles’ veterans, etc.), hung pictures of the faces of veterans from the ceiling and added a military centerpiece to each lobby area (a jeep, a U-2 cockpit, scale models of a tank and submarine, etc.) The right-brain emotional approach really got people’s attention and made them see that we were serious about helping veterans.

We also placed an equal emphasis on left-brain displays, building war rooms to highlight and review organizational performance, hanging monitors to give daily updates on team performance and rewards information and posted each employee’s individual performance so that their were no secrets and everyone could see how they were doing relative to the standards and their peers.

These displays reinforced the changes we were making to an unprecedented degree. People acted differently and became much engaged and committed, our reputation quickly improved and most importantly, so did our performance. Moreover, we suddenly received far more applications for our managerial vacancies because people wanted to work for an organization that now had a reputation for creativity and excellence. 

Our rate of granting benefits, which had been 50% below the nation, increased to the appropriate level, customer satisfaction increased by 37%, the number of veteran rehabilitated increased by 600% and the number of vacant properties in our inventory declined by 93%. We eventually became the only VA regional office to receive the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s prestigious PILLAR (Performance Incentives Leadership Linked to Achieving Results) Award.

In and of itself our visual management program did not cause the positive changes cited above in our performance and culture. However, there is no doubt that it enabled our progress by reinforcing everything we were trying to accomplish and tying our systems, processes and culture together in a manner that you could see, hear and feel.

Other organizations have successfully used this concept including the Brigham Young Football Team, several healthcare systems and the Ohio Department of Alcohol, Drugs and Mental Health. All of these organizations used visual management as a way to win the hearts and minds of their employees and most importantly, help them improve.

The Beauty of Visual Management

If designed and implemented properly, visual management will help transform your physical plant into a living, breathing tribute to your mission, vision and desired results, as well as to your employees and customers. Anyone working for you will have no doubt as to what you are about, where you have been and where you are going, which will enhance your overall organizational focus.

It will also convey a more deeply emotional feeling than people are used to because the space will so vividly celebrate your mission, history, accomplishments, the people who work there, or used to work there, your customers, etc. It will also make it absolutely clear to everyone that you are a performance-driven organization that continually strives to achieve its goals.

How to Implement Visual Management

There are two distinct stages to implementing the concept: 1) planning and preparation, and 2) implementation. The first stage is comprised of two phases, which are:

  • Planning – which includes gaining the support of senior management and then establishing a visual management team (one of its responsibilities is to prepare the organization for the change), developing and refining the mission, vision and values and linking hem to the organizational goals, introducing the overall concept to everyone and developing a visual roadmap.
  • Building a framework – this covers education and design and conducting a physical audit and assessment. This is an extremely important part of the process since some people will question why you are investing in a program that they may think is simply a glorified fine arts initiative.

The second stage has four phases. They are:

  • Creating the space – this involves reviewing the workflow and space, evaluating the decision-making and information systems, looking at the people systems and making sure that the physical plant and management systems fit together and are properly aligned.
  • Focusing on the customers and data – this is where you start hanging displays of your customers, suppliers and the mission, begin to focus on your data systems and start to celebrate your victories.
  • Focusing on the organization and employees and fine-tuning the details – here is where you start to work on team and employee performance, build in an integrated rewards program, celebrate the good work of your folks and tighten up your displays.
  • Renewing the process – this is the time to evaluate how the concept is working, change some of the members of the visual management team, visit other offices to steal shamelessly from them and refresh your displays. 

You do not have to implement visual management in the exact sequence I just described. After all, if you already have part or all of some of the phases in place (e.g. the mission, vision and values are clearly defined), there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The implementation approach I just described is there as a framework for thinking so you can implement and customize the concept to your individual situation.

The Challenges in Implementing a Visual Management Program

Expect a significant pushback from some people when trying to implement this program. While some will immediately “get it” and become instant champions of the program, others (mostly people who are left-brain dominant) will not and may rebel against the concept. From their perspective, this is a waste of time and money that could be better served by channeling these resources into direct labor.

A good way to address this is get as many people involved as possible, not necessarily by being on the Visual Management Committee, but perhaps asking them to provide artifacts, success stories, pictures, etc. By doing this you will help make them feel a part of the overall design effort. 

Second, implementing a Visual Management Program takes time, energy and persistence and can easily lose momentum once unanticipated and yet inevitable problems pop up. This is why having a senior level champion of the program is so important; i.e. to ensure that the program continues to be nurtured and develop despite the distractions that arise over time.

Third, expect to be criticized by people outside your office (perhaps your headquarters, other offices, etc.) so be prepared to explain that this is a program designed to improve your culture and performance and help the employees become more engaged and committed. 


Visual management is an approach that can make a huge difference in your organization. By the same token, it is important not to oversell the concept, as none of the organizations that have implemented it would attribute their success solely to it. That would be a gross overstatement.

However, it is fair to say that visual management has been a strategic differentiator for all of these organizations and has contributed to their success through constant reinforcement of their core themes, helping to rally the workforce around their mission and metrics and by placing an unusually strong focus on data, analysis and accountability.

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