Color Innovations

When we think of the shop floor or the workplace, we usually picture a fairly drab and dreary scene. Most colors in evidence reinforce this image – gray machinery and cement floors workers in blue faded “work clothes.” The addition of color to the shop floor may yield a number of benefits, some more obvious than others.

The most obvious use of color in the workplace is in emphasizing safety.-Fire escape lanes or aisles should be marked off in red, as should fire extinguishers. Yellow zones should be prominently painted around moving machinery. Vehicles and material handling machinery should be brightly colored to enhance visibility. OSHA has in fact a color code for painting pipes, such as green for air lines, and should be used as reference in developing any color scheme. At the same time these colors serve to brighten up the plant.  The variety of color, even if only used for safety, stimulates our minds and makes life more interesting for the operators.

Perhaps more than any other identifying feature, color is unmatched for its ability to aid in rapid sorting. Inexpensive self-adhesive colored dots may be used for lot control or acceptance by quality control. This process may start in receiving inspection in the warehouse. As the lot is approved, the inspector may place a specific colored dot on the goods to identity them as being approved. The warehouse-man may also mark each incoming pallet or box with a sticker identifying which lot the goods belong. I have found that the color of the dot does not matter, so long as each lot has its own identifying color. In pulling the goods for use, the clerk pulls all of one color code before starting with the next. This ensures good stock rotation without a lot of time searching for date codes and hence ensuring compliance with FIFO policies at a glance.

Colored dots may also help control WIP. Even though each individual traveler may have identifying information, a colored dot may ease lot recognition and ensure good control. Quality inspections or successful tests performed by production personnel may be signaled by a specially colored dot on the traveler. In one simple quality test in particular, the traveler was to be signed before the next process initiated. All too often the product was grabbed by the next department and processed, only to find later that the test signature was missing. The product modification performed by the second department negated the possibility of simply repeating the original test. A much more costly and laborious retest then had to be performed in order to approve the product. A florescent colored dot in addition to the signature on the traveler eliminated the problem overnight.

In a simple manufacturing process, each product line may have its own color. By dedicating and color-coding kanban or storage bins, instead of merely using part numbers, WIP quantities can be evaluated at a glance. Whichever color bin is empty prompts an immediate recognition and response, without having to look up part numbers. ‘This is especially useful with large or bulky items which may be stored over a large area or high up on storage racks.

Manufacturers of printed multiple forms have long known the advantage of sorting by color. Each colored copy goes for a particular parry of department. This concept can easily be spread to manufacturing documents such as material requisitions, travelers or Engineering Change Orders I even use different colored pens when reviewing documents – a different color for each revision.

Colored flags may be used to identity incomplete parts or items needing rework. A different colored flag may either indicate what problem exists or which department needs to fix it. In either case, a flag system helps to assess rework needs and types of troubles and will help focus corrective action quickly.

One frequent misuse of color is the use of red to indicate URGENT. A company that resorts to too many of these “urgent” tags soon looks for a more “urgent color than red for the REALLY URGENT orders. Systematic expediting of work orders has tremendous hidden costs, and should not, as a rule be legitimized by establishing color schemes to work orders, etc. The colors most frequently associated with such a production system are RED INK and PINK SLIPS.

The list of possible uses of color to aid production is almost endless. Virtually any operation with a visual cue is a candidate for “colorization”. Color can aid in lot, stock, and quality control. The examples listed above help focus on workflow and reinforce FIFO and stock reduction efforts. They cost little to implement, are easy to employ, and result in significant improvements in productivity, accuracy and safety. We as manufacturing professionals must employ the full pallet of colors as another weapon in our arsenal to keep our companies in the black and keep us in the green. That should keep us from getting the blues!

This first appeared in APICS Centuryport 1990.  Copyright 1990 Paul Yandell.  All rights reserved.

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