Would you like some fries with that visual management?


Listening to Michael Krasny's Forum interview with David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration and author of the new book, The End of Overeating), I heard an example of visual management tools from an unlikely place -- the Google cafeteria.

Google's cafeteria is legendary for the variety, quality, and price (free!) of the food and snacks it serves. As you might imagine, with that much food there's a real danger of employees, um, overgrazing at the trough. So Google uses visual management -- red, yellow, and green placards in front of the food -- to help employees monitor what they eat. The green cards in front of fruits and vegetables mean "go crazy -- have all you want." The yellow cards mean "moderate quantities are okay." The red cards mean "just a taste," and are placed in front of the Krispy Kreme donuts and fried pork rinds.

Like the best visual management systems, it's simple and easy to understand. It doesn't help create "standard work" in the lean sense or show normal vs. abnormal operating conditions. But it does provide employees with important information about what they should be eating in order to stay healthy, without relying upon calorie counts or detailed nutritional information. And that's good for Google's health care costs.

These cards play into the "nudge" theory of improving decisions as popularized by the behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. (More info on their blog and in this earlier post.) And that makes me wonder: could we develop a similar set of cards for the workplace? What if certain computer programs (I'm looking at you, Outlook) came with some sort of red icon meaning "just a taste." Or if you're a financial analyst and most of your work is in spreadsheets, Excel would have a green icon. (Of course, it's already green, but you know what I'm getting at.) Throughout the day, your computer could show you what percentage of time you've spent in green, red, or yellow software.

Or perhaps meetings could be color coded. Brainstorming sessions, which can often be giant time sucks, or meetings that have more than 6 attendees, can be flagged with a red icon: be wary of how many of these meetings you attend. But meetings that have a clearly defined goal, or that have just a few attendees, can be flagged with a yellow icon: going to a moderate number of these meetings is okay.

Okay, I realize that these suggestions are clumsy and most likely impractical. But it's worth considering how you might be able to use visual management tools to keep you away from the work equivalent of empty calorie, high-cholesterol, salty snack foods.

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