I hopped into my rental car in Fort Lauderdale, impressed with how much the whole process of renting a vehicle has improved from the days when it felt like you were signing your life away for a few days of local transportation. The cars seem better too. I was very pleased on this day to see how far Ford has come, rivaling the feel and performance of their European and Japanese competitors.

As I made my way north, I scanned the dashboard, admiring the vast amount of information. My attention landed on an electronic image showing a series of vines intertwined across a five inch screen. Is this display intended to entertain me in some way? I had no clue and since I was driving it was not my priority to find out. As I coasted to the traffic jam ahead, my eyes again returned to the display, just in time to see a leaf slowly emerge from the vine on the display. I got a new leaf! But then as I accelerated, I noticed the leaf fall off the vine, and drift slowly to the right. Aww, I just lost my leaf.

By now I was beginning to figure out that the display was intended to show me how efficiently the engine is being run, which explains the phrase “efficiency leaves” that I now noticed above the display, near the indication of time and temperature. Who thought this was a good idea?

For those of us in quality circles, the efficiency leaves represents a form of visual control. Visual controls are intended to guide individuals and to assist them in operating a process correctly, in this case, operating the engine at peak efficiency to balance fuel consumption with progress toward your destination.

The goal of a visual control is to make it easy to do the right thing. They should be easy to intuit, allowing you to respond quickly with low probability of making a mistake. Think of the traffic light—while it may change in shape around the world, we all know how to read and react to the colors.

Airports, hospitals, hotels and conference halls are places where visual controls are particularly useful, and you recognize those situations quickly where you need these cues most. Visual controls are easy to take for granted. They do their work with little fanfare or recognition.

But here is the problem with my “efficiency leaves.” As I tried to interpret the display, I found myself more concerned with whether I was gaining or losing leaves than if I was about to rear end the car in front of me. How many leaves did I start with on this journey anyway? How many do I have left? Is that a leaf I see about to emerge on the third vine from the right? How many leaves will I lose if I “floor it?”

When you are more confused by the visual control than the demands of the process itself, you have a real problem.

Consider visual controls whenever you’ve taken efforts at error-proofing as far as you can go (for more on this, see my column “No Apology Necessary” in the October issue). Here are some simple rules for setting up capable visual controls in your organization. The key is to keep it simple:

  • Use checklists for tasks
  • Use symbols for directions
  • Use images that immediately draw attention
  • Use whiteboards that provide status at a glance
  • Consider red, yellow, green for alignment with traditional views toward these colors

Visual controls are one of the simplest and most effective quality control mechanisms we have. Let’s figure out how to use them wisely, without getting tangled in the vines.