Fluttering your flag

Inspire to perform and grow through visual management

In New Zealand we are currently going through a referendum to decide between a new national flag and the existing one. Understandably there is huge debate with many opinions and strong emotions, which I am not going to get involved in.

However, I have been intrigued by the concept of displaying a flag, so, I did a bit of research.

Displaying flags dates back to about 1,000 BC, with claims of it being used as early as 3,000 BC. Egyptians displayed some primitive forms of flags made from wood or metal for identification and signalling purposes. Evidence of this practice has been found in Egyptian tombs. A few other sources indicate that these precursors of our current use of a flag can be seen on ancient Greek coins as well.

Ships also started using flags to signal to other ships and people on land when they had sick or infectious people on board. And then there was (still is?) the feared pirate’s flag: a definitive signal that things are turning bad for you…  Flags are whirling to signal weather conditions like the windsock shown here at a bowling club in Queenstown, New Zealand (competition must be fierce if you need to analyse the wind direction…).  In the military, the flag has always been a symbol of strength, courage, loyalty, hope and victory. Raising the American flag on Iwo Jima during February 1945 comes to mind. To capture the opposition’s flag indicated their defeat.

The power of a flag lies in its visual effect. It is very prominently displayed for everyone to see. This is where my Lean reflection kicks in: an organisation needs “flags” to encourage and inspire its people. Regularly updating standardised information on a well-designed team board, is the equivalent of hoisting the flag every morning. Everybody can see every day how we are performing everywhere. We draw inspiration from our successes and analyse where we have lost territory - the red flags will guide us. Standardised “pirate flags” will provide immediate feedback of the approaching disease in our processes so we can plan-do-check-act to improve a dire situation and avoid further or future losses.

Visual management is also about following the same purpose on the battlefields of the production line or the hospital wards. Clearly displayed targets and gaps, becomes the guiding force for improvement; we follow the flag. But as with flags it is the responsibility of our leaders to ensure we have meaningful flags in the battalions to enable clear, transparent communication. Without these “flags” teams tend to become directionless, frustrated at each other, and ultimately, hopeless. The outcome is costly high staff turnover and low morale.

The flag also signifies that we are all in a battle against a common enemy: Muda! In a non-KAIZEN™ team, colleagues, the manager, the operators, and the previous process steps, are the enemies – how sad to see the internal bombardment of an organisation’s own resources, crippling people and processes through poor behaviour.

Let’s use visual management to such an extent that our plans, problems, performance, and processes can inspire our people to create the highest value for our customers…

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