Visual Controls: A Critical Component Of Institutional Knowledge Transfer

EP Editorial Staff | September 14, 2012


Filling the void when seasoned employees retire or move on from your operations calls for clarification, clarification, clarification. Here’s where a picture may truly be worth a thousand words.

Over the next few years, the demographics of your workforce are likely to change dramatically. The baby boomer generation is nearing retirement, and companies are facing significant workforce reductions—up to 50% for some.

When seasoned employees retire, there’s going to be a staggering knowledge loss. The acquisition of knowledge simply cannot take place the way it has in the past. Workers no longer have years to get up to speed on the layout of the plant, the location of equipment and controls or the proper operational and maintenance procedures. The influx of young employees and contracted workers—qualified as they may be—will not have the on-the-job experience that is so vital to your organization’s success. 

Now more than ever, it’s crucial to mine the valuable knowledge of experienced workers. This article focuses on how your organization can leverage the knowledge of seasoned employees, develop it and embed it into your workplace environment. Through the use of standardized, specific point-of-need visuals, you can transfer this knowledge to your new employees, ensuring that regardless of their skill levels, they all have the information they need—exactly when and where they need it

Who will do the work?
A 2007 survey of a diverse group of 480 organizations entitled “The Real Talent Debate: Will Aging Boomers Deplete the Workforce” [Ref. 1] found that 42.2% of the respondents saw their aging workforce as a significant concern. Some industries, including those in the petro-chemical and power-generation sectors, are reporting retirement gluts of up to 50% of their workforce. 

The lack of planning for the impending crisis is particularly alarming. The survey found that 42.7% of the responding companies have no organizational group responsible for the knowledge transfer involving their mature workers; 81% have no process to determine the future work intentions of their employees. 

In short, companies are not presently capturing the knowledge of their seasoned workers. Even worse is the fact that the majority of them don’t know when they’re going to lose this knowledge. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the only disturbing news. The problem lies as muchif not more sowith the skill level of those employees who will be replacing the retiring boomers. The retirement rates among skilled maintenance and manufacturing workers are accelerating, yet fewer young people are choosing to pursue a career in maintenance and manufacturing. According to Maintenance Technology Contributing Editor Bob Williamson in his July 2010 “Uptime” column, this skills shortage is the eye of “the perfect storm.” Even if there are enough bodies to fill open positions, many of those new employees will not have the learned skills necessary to be effective. [Ref. 2]

Creating a smooth transition for new employees
Visual controls are one of the most effective and efficient ways to facilitate the knowledge transfer between employees, particularly when they are used in conjunction with conventional training methods. Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth, a foremost authority on Visual Management, cites that companies have reduced training time by as much as 49% through the use of visual controls. [Ref. 3]

The concept behind visual controls is to place visually instructive information at the point of neednot just in a binder or on a computer, but rather on or at the physical location of the task or hazard. This information should serve one or more of three purposes:

  • Safety awareness, such as indicating a hazardous situation or environment,
  • Equipment identification and location information
  • Task W+H information (What, Where, When, Who, How & How Much) 

Case in point: visual directions…
You need to get to a specific location, but you’re not sure how to get there. What are the different ways you can get the information you need to determine your route? 

You could stop and ask someone for directions; however, this often leads to inaccuraciesand the need to ask again.
You could use a map, but the map could have out-of-date information, and you’ll have to spread it over your steering wheel, which could lead to safety risks and misguided turns.  You could also use an electronic device and enter your destination prior to starting your trip. The device would then supply turn- by-turn instructions, which are usually the correct directions and the most efficient way of getting to your destination. 

This same logic can also be applied to equipment identification and, more importantly, to the processes and procedures employed in a plant. When developing lockout/tagout, TPM, 5S or other procedures, you have a choice between creating: 

  • Basic text documents (usually left in a binder in the Safety or Maintenance office, which often entails finding someone to ask questions of or gain access to the binder from). 
  • CAD style drawings that show a “representation” of the equipment, but still require employees to determine exactly where things are and how to accomplish the task.
  • Photograph-based, step-by-step (turn-by-turn) instructions that match what the worker is seeing in real-time. (This is the most effective and efficient option.)

Examples of effective real-plant visual controls

Lubrication Schedule: As the following graphics show, a detailed lubrication schedule can be converted into simple visuals that even novice employees can understand and properly perform.


Inspection Points: Many experienced workers are able to recite the acceptable operating parameters of the equipment they run, yet they may not “see” an abnormality if they’re not actively looking for it. Most inexperienced workers will not have the knowledge base to know if there are abnormalities. Visuals can be used to make sure information is at the Point of Need that makes it obvious at a glance if there are any abnormalities. 


Compliance Marking: Numerous compliance standards require some type of marking or identification. The need is clear. For example, a study performed in the utility industry, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that 54% of all operator errors were due to inadequate or missing labeling. Compliance-related markings are THE prime candidate for incorporating useful information beyond the basic regulatory warning requirement. Pipe marking is one such example. 

In addition to electrical circuitry, piping systems are one of the most common areas where identification is insufficient. This lack of identification leads to time wasted in searches for flow, origins, destinations and valves. Note the difference in clarity and specificity in the following labeling conventions. Which type of labeling is the most comprehensive and easiest to understand? 


Getting started

Determining standard work and creating visual controls… 
To begin implementing visual controls in your facility, you need to first identify a critical piece of equipment (i.e. a bottleneck piece or high-revenue producer), or an application that’s critical to your operation (i.e. lubrication). Gather a team of mature workers (maintenance & operators) and determine the best way of completing the necessary tasks. (If the best maintenance person or operator you would have chosen has retired, consider bringing them in for a brief consulting role.) 

Next, document the step-by-step instructions and place them in a binder or online database as standard work. Then take the specific W+H info and transfer it onto placards, labels or tags; these are your visual controls. Post the visual controls directly onto the equipment at the point of need. These visuals will encourage standardization across employees, and equip all workers with the information they need to complete the task in the most effective and efficient manner. 

To ensure long-term success, remember that a visual control kaizen—or effort—should not be a single event. It should be an ongoing process, with auditing and enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure the standard work is still the best possible or  practical method, and that it is habitually followed. 

The time is now
The numbers don’t lie. In the years ahead, companies are going to face big challenges as their seasoned workforce enters retirement. Yet these challenges present your organization with a number of improvement opportunities for visual controls and standardization. 

With the proper identification and markings, your new employees won’t be pressured to remember everything; they’ll just need to know where to look. Placing critical information at the point of need gives them instant access to knowledge that has been accumulated over time from OEMs and experts. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. Visual controls and standardization of your markings can yield safety improvements and incremental productivity increases that add up to enormous cost savings over time. Startup, shutdown, Lockout/Tagout, and changeover events have a great impact on the bottom line with the reduction of even a few minutes of downtime. 

Get ready for the changes that are comingand equip your organization for a smooth and successful transition to the future: Find the information. Document it. Post it with visual controls. There’s still time, but the clock is ticking. MT


1.“The Real Talent Debate: Will Aging Boomers Deplete the Workforce.” 2007 Survey, conducted by World at Work, Buck Consultants, Corporate Voices for Working Families:

2.Williamson, Bob. “Our Aging Workforce–It’s a War Out There.” Uptime column, Maintenance Technology, July 2010.

3.Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth:

4.The Electric Power Research Institute: EPRI-NP-6937. (

Darrell Carmichael is an Industry Specialist for Petrochemical and Power Generation with Brady North America. He has 13 years of experience helping companies improve safety and operational initiatives, including TPM, 5S, Lockout/Tagout, Arc Flash and Right to Know, among others. Carmichael is active in the American Society of Safety Engineers, SMRP, the Southern Gas Association and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM, formerly NPRA).



  • Show More Videos

    Featured Video Play Icon
    Clear Advantages for Window Machine Maker

    Manufacturing custom windows for architects is both an exacting business and an extremely cost-sensitive undertaking. By automating their window fenestration equipment, DeMichele Group meets their customers’ price and precision goals in a way that makes designing each new machine quicker and easier. See how strategic alliances with key suppliers yield a system with superior productivity […]


View Comments

Sign up for insights, trends, & developments in
  • Machinery Solutions
  • Maintenance & Reliability Solutions
  • Energy Efficiency
Return to top