What's the purpose of visual management boards? Is it to help identify problems and improve processes? Or is it to instill fear and insecurity?

Steve Lopez at the LA Times shows how Disney hotels use visual controls for the latter pupose:

In the basements of the Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels in Anaheim, big flat-screen monitors hang from the walls in rooms where uniformed crews do laundry. The monitors are like scoreboards, with employees' work speeds compared to one another. Workers are listed by name, so their colleagues can see who is quickest at loading pillow cases, sheets and other items into a laundry machine.

Isabel Barrera, a Disneyland Hotel laundry worker for eight years, began calling the new system the "electronic whip" when it was installed last year. The name has stuck.

Employees in the Anaheim hotels are required to key in their ID when they arrive, and from then on, their production speed is displayed for all to see. For instance, the monitor might show that S. Lopez is working at an efficiency rate of 37% of expected production. The screen displays the names of several coworkers at once, with "efficiency" numbers in green for those near or above 100% of the expected pace, and red numbers for those who aren't as fast.

Measuring productivity among hotel workers is apparently common in the hotel industry: how fast are rooms being cleaned, how quickly is laundry turned around, etc. That's not so different from the measurements that many organizations take. However, there's a huge difference when the measurements are used to identify problems in a system or process in order to aid in improvement activities, and when they're being used to "motivate" workers.

"I was nervous," said Barerra, who makes $11.94 an hour, "and felt that I was being controlled even more."

According to Barrera, the whip has led to a sort of competition among workers, some of whom have tried to race to the head of the pack. But that has led to dissension and made other employees worry that a reasonable pace won't be enough to keep the boss happy. Barrera and Beatriz Topete, an official with Unite Here Local 11, said employees have been known to skip bathroom breaks out of fear that their production will fall and managers will demand an explanation. They say they felt bad for a pregnant employee who had trouble keeping up.

In Disney's case, this system is -- predictably -- doing the polar opposite of Dr. Deming's precept to drive out fear. With no control over the system, and no ability to make improvements, workers are forced into a helpless chase after some arbitrarily defined level of productivity. It's clear that no one knows how the targets were set and what levels will "keep the boss happy." To Deming's point, if the system in which people work accounts for 90-95% of performance, simply displaying people's production speed is less than helpful. It's toxic.

I'll qualify my blog post at this point to say that I don't know anything about the journalist who wrote this piece. Is he a muckraker? Is he biased? Did he truly investigate this situation by talking to management as well as workers? I don't know. However, I can say that the presence of fear and uncertainty is a strong indicator that, from a lean perspective, there's a problem at the Magic Kingdom.

More broadly, the misuse of these visual controls is a powerful demonstration that lean isn't about tools. Used properly, Disney's flat-screen monitors could be similar to an andon, alerting management to a problem in the system, or in employee skill development, or in process design. Used as a instrument of measurement for punitive purposes -- well, all you get is an electronic whip.