The Purpose of Visualization:


Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after.” – a quote misattributed to Henry David Thoreau.

What is the purpose of visualization? Before answering this, let’s look at what is visualization. Visualization is making information visible at the gemba. The information could be in the form of daily production boards or it could be non-conforming components or other artifacts placed on a table on the production floor. Another phrase that is used in place of visualization is “visibilization”. I had talked about this in the post – Visibilization: Crime Fighting, Magic and Mieruka. The purpose of visualization or visibilization is to make waste visible so that appropriate action can be pursued. Or is it?

I recently came across the paper “Defining Insight for Visual Analytics” by Chang, Ziemkiewicz et al. I enjoyed the several insights I was able to gain from this paper. The purpose of visualization is to enable and discover insight. This may seem fairly logical and straightforward. Chang et al. details that there are two types of insights – knowledge building insight and spontaneous insight. The knowledge building insight is a linear continuous process where the operator can use established problem solving methods and heuristics to solve a problem and gain insight into the process. The spontaneous insight does not come from gradual learning heuristics or problem solving methods. The spontaneous insight results in “aha!” moments and usually new knowledge. The spontaneous insight often occurs when the operator has tried the normal problem solving routines without success. The spontaneous insight happens in frustration after several attempts when the mind breaks off from normal routines. Researchers are able to study the two insights by using electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the participants’ brains.

Chang et al. notes that – In normal problem solving, the activity in the temporal lobe is continuous and mostly localized in the left hemisphere, which is thought to encode more detailed information in tightly related semantic networks. This indicates that normal problem solving involves a narrow but continuous focus on information that is highly relevant to the problem at hand. In contrast, when participants solve a problem with spontaneous insight, the right temporal lobe shows a sharp burst of activity, specifically in an area known as the superior temporal gyrus. Unlike the left temporal lobe, the right temporal lobe is thought to encode information in coarse, loosely associated semantic networks. This suggests that spontaneous insight occurs through sudden activation of less clearly relevant information through weak semantic networks, which corresponds to a participant’s paradigm shift following an impasse.

The findings indicate that the spontaneous insight is qualitatively different from the knowledge building insight. The knowledge building insight is using the normal routines and increasing the existing knowledge, while the spontaneous insight is breaking away from the normal routines and creating new knowledge. Spontaneous insight is a form of problem solving that is used to find solutions to difficult and seemingly incomprehensible problems. Knowledge-building insight, on the other hand, is a form learning that builds a relationally semantic knowledge base through a variety of problem-solving and reasoning heuristics.

In the light of the two insights, which one is better? The point is not to identify what is better, but to understand that both types of insights are important and are both related to one another. Chang et al. theorizes that one can only gain spontaneous insights only from routine knowledge building insights. In their words – Einstein didn’t come up with the Theory of Relativity out of thin air but rather based it on experiments inconsistent with existing theories and previous mathematical work. The existence of deep, complex knowledge about a subject increases the likelihood that a novel connection can be made within that knowledge. Likewise, each major spontaneous insight opens up the possibility of new directions for knowledge-building. Together, the two types of insights support each other in a loop that allows human learning to be both flexible and scalable.

Chang et al. hypothesizes that there is a positive non-linear relationship between gaining insights and the knowledge that the operator already possesses. The more knowledge the operator has, the more likelihood that the operator will gain further insights with visualization. In this light, the purpose of visualization is to develop your employees, and in some regards demonstrates respect for people. Making the problems/waste visible allows them to engage in daily/ frequent problem solving routines that builds knowledge building insights, which then leads to spontaneous insights to improving their processes. In other words, it is about building the continuous improvement muscle! The problems on the floor can vary in their complexities. There can be routine problems with known linear relationships (simple to complicated problems), and there can be problems where there are no known solutions and are intricately woven with non-linear relationships (complicated to complex problems). Solving the routine problems can help with gaining valuable spontaneous insights to tackle the complex problems.

I will finish off with a quote from the great Carl Sagan when he went on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson:

For most of history of life on this planet, almost all the information they had to deal with was in their (organisms’) genes.  Then about 100 million years ago or a little longer than that, there came to be a reptile that for the first time in the history of life had more information in its brains than in its genes. That was a major step symbolically in the evolution of life on this planet. Well, now we have an organism – us, which can store more information outside the body altogether than inside the body – that is in books and computers and television and video cassettes. And that extraordinarily expands our abilities to understand what is happening and to manipulate and control our environment, if we do it wisely, for human benefit.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Looking at Kaizen and Kaikaku:


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