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Monday, May 9, 2011

Changing Visual Standards Causes Mistakes

A recent trip to the grocery store caused some pain at home. Jeff Hajek and I recently held a webinar on learning lean concepts from home where we used milk as the example.  In this presentation we discussed visual standards which are help you identify the right type of milk.  Below is an example of this visual:  

It has been my experience that not all stores in all areas of the country use the color codes the same. This is probably not too different them what you may have experienced with signs and floor markings associated with 5S.  But once you understand this visual standard you get used to it's meaning.  A trip to the grocery store 2 weeks ago was a reminder of the power of visual standards.  

I have 3 young children who drink a lot of milk.  We buy about 5 gallons a week usually at the same store at the same time (after church on Sunday Morning).  Our family drinks fat free or skim milk as it is called.  After our shopping trip while giving one of our kids milk we noticed a problem.  The milk was not skim but rather 2%.  The kids of course drank it but noticed the difference in thickness and taste.  I thought I had a mental gap and got the wrong milk.  Maybe a sign of age.  

Well it turns out that there is a reason for this mistake.  On our next trip to the store there was this sign:

Apparently, the store changed the visual standards and labeling for the milk.  I was used to buying green colored skim milk.  I got so used to the color I never really looked at the label.  Now the green color is for the 2% milk.  Ah ha.  You can see from this picture how easy it would be to make a mistake.  I am guessing I was probably not the only one to make this mistake since they added this sign the second week after the change.

So the lesson in all this is that visual standards are a powerful mistake proofing device when doing a task.  But changing visual standards can cause the very mistake you might be trying to prevent.  We can become complacent when we find comfort in our surroundings.

Do you have an example where a change in visual standards have caused a mistake at home or work?  How did it take you to notice the change?

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  1. Tim,

    This is an interesting example that really illustrates the value of visual management. It reminds me of when I was the Production Manager making iced tea mix. I was amazed how changing the color of the caps led to phone calls from loyal customers who could no longer find their favorite product. This was in spite of the fact that the brand and product name was still prominently displayed on the label. Colors play a major role in visual management.

    This example also underscores the need to communicate changes early and often. Early communication will raise potential issues while you still have time to prevent them as well as raising awareness (http://wp.me/pZiRD-1j)

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Tim,

    I also have been victimized by the milk ruse. And as a 2%er there's nothing worse than getting home and finding out you have 1%. I think the problem lies in the fact that color codes (in almost all cases) are not universal. This is precisely why when I work with a team to develop visual management systems I generally discourage them from using color coding. When blue and yellow don't mean the same thing in one cell that they do in another you're bound to get errors. In my opinion, the only colors that should be used for visual management are green and red (normal/abnornal). These are pretty much universal. Anything else is confusing.


  3. Orange used to represent "decaf" coffee in restaurants. When some places starting using black to represent "regular" and white to represent "decaf," people got confused. I think it's funny -- in a way -- that they lost their logic but remembered code orange.