Do you remember a post-hippie era song called Signs? The song’s refrain came to mind recently during a workplace walkthrough:
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
Both office and factory were heavily invested in workplace organization, striving to create a workplace free of confusion. Employees told me, when asked, that they never had to search for anything – ever. The manager who walked with me proudly spoke of their team effort to create order from chaos by sorting out unneeded items – information, material and equipment. “The employees in each department were the change agents,” he said. “They decided first what should go and then where to place the things they need.”
To be sure, there were clearly marked, set locations for almost everything. Floors, bench tops, shelving, cabinets and bookcases all were taped and addressed. But one thing bothered me. Lots of signs. Little reminders were posted everywhere (“do this, don’t do that”) intended to usher the flow of production and information sans delays or defects:
- A decal on an assembly fixture warned: Caution. Do not operate without material. An operator explained to me that fixture would be damaged if run empty. “Has that ever happened? I asked. “Why do you think the sign is there?” she replied.
- Above a packing bench in the shipping department a cute sign inquired, Got manuals? to remind packers to include operating instructions with products.
- In the test lab, a sign over a test bath read, Turn on at shift start, off at shift end. “Do you ever forget?” I asked. “Yes, occasionally,” was the reply.
- In a production control department, signs on computers read, Please log off at night.
- Signs for the order desk were everywhere, some formal and some just hand-written notes. “How do you keep track of all of these exceptions and special conditions?” I asked the order-entry person. “I just know,” replied the employee, “and many of these notes are out of date anyway.”
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign ,” I began humming to myself.
“Why all of the signs?” I asked my host as I pointed a couple do-this-don’t-do that’s. “They’re work standards,” he replied.
“But aren’t most of these signs just warning employees about problems that haven’t been fixed?” I asked.
My host looked at me incredulously and said, “It’s just part of their jobs.”
“Is it really?” I persisted. “Are these things they were hired to do, or are these signs just mental clutter?”
What do you think? How many signs can you find in your department? Chime in.