How GM Is Saving Cash Using Legos As A Data Viz Tool

Using Legos to visualize production problems, GM can better see how big the issues are and where they fit in the grand scheme.

Most data we study is presented in 2-D. And as clear as a pie or line graph can be, it’s still a once-removed experience, just something else you see on paper or a computer screen. You can’t grasp it or reshape it. You can’t really play with it.

This bothered Dennis Pastor (executive director of performance excellence for WellStar Health Systems) and Tim Herrick (global chief engineer at General Motors). While their businesses were fundamentally different—one a health care nonprofit, the other a manufacturer of automobiles—the two former colleagues would consult with one another from time to time, and they both found themselves in need of a practical approach to visualization.

"We discussed on a Friday afternoon our frustrations with some of our reports not showing us what we really needed to see," Pastor writes Co.Design. "We came to the conclusion that our processes were three dimensional but our reports were only two dimensional. We needed to see them 3-D; hand sketches were exchanged over the weekend and within the following week, GM had the first Lego prototype in use."

Now GM is using Legos for problem resolution tracking. If a transmission block breaks during durability testing, they’ll file a traditional paper report, but the case will also be added to a Lego board. Legos in various colors denote the area of the vehicle, and the block size denotes the severity of the problem.

Meanwhile, WellStar is using the boards to track on-time starts at the doctor’s office, and even manage its physician-payee relationships—which has led to a series of fixes projected to save the company $1 million.

"Aside from the 3-D rendering, the greatest impact is when teams come together daily or weekly to update the status of the board," Pastor explains. "Depending on the type of board the teams either want to see their Legos moving in a positive direction or have a solid action plan for addressing one that is red. It is the ultimate in transparency and accountability. Tim sums it up best, ‘Legos never lie.’"

But beyond their transparency, there may be a bigger advantage to Legos: they’re also fun. By mapping real world problems to an icon of our youth, each challenge must be approached with an inherent playfulness. And because Legos are, by their very nature, expected to be rebuilt, patterns don’t appear stuck in stone—or just as bad—printed in ink. Now, if only we could get the Lego pirate ship or a lunar rover in the mix, we’d really have something.

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  • Balta

    I loved the story about LEGO! They are using the same procedures many companies follow to spend less money in labs (Some use fischertechnik).

    Do post more like these!

  • brettmcateer

    The little plastic things are LEGO bricks or pieces, not "Legos."
    LEGO is a brand and the word is a proper noun.
    There is no plural form because there is only one LEGO.
    Bloggers have a duty of care that is going ignored.

  • Jaceti

    No wonder the automotive companies are in trouble - the engineers are left to work with $5 dollar toys to find new efficiencies and the execs are taking home the money that should have been invested in more appropriate tools to make the company succeed.  You can bet the Japanese companies aren't this confused about priorities!

  • Hammerfelt

    At the high school where my mother has worked as a math teacher for more than 30 years, they used Lego to plan out the entire educational year with each teacher and subject having special bricks. And this was more than 20 years ago.

  • Jon

    On visiting the Rovio offices, the Rovio animation dept. also uses a system similar to this.

  • pascaledesign

    I usually love your articles but I have to say that I really didn't like this one.  It sounds like one of these super cliches that you can find in articles about innovation.  Like innovate from your garage... or innovate at a restaurant on a napkin... or innovate with legos...
    Come on... this Head of Engineering of GM really just started to realize that he needs to visualize his company's problem in 3D?  How much is he paid again for using legos?  And legos helped him save $1M?  This really sounds like an easy teaser article.  Fast Company usually does better.  Sorry to be so tough...

  • Itha

    My initial comment is really not about Lego/LEGO/Legos/LEGOS.  I simply re-used the word as was in the article.
    The point I am trying to make is that it is a very powerful methodology and one I use often and with great success.  The underlying principles is constructivism and constructionism.  
    I have conducted in excess of 50 workshops, not one exactly the same but all with a similar buy-in.  It is rather amusing to see people's faces when they first walk into the room and see all the LEGO and the initial scepticism and hesitation vs the participation, deep engagement and fun.  The biggest sceptics often turns into the biggest fans.
    As with any process though, it is critical for you as the facilitator to prepare well and to ask the meaningful and poignant questions.

  • Guest

    "LEGO" is always capitalized."LEGO" is an adjective, not a noun, i.e. "LEGO bricks" not "LEGOs".

  • Itha

    I am a Lego Serious Play facilitator and have used lego for more than 10 years with various clients doing things such as: problem solving, idea generation, solution testing, building team cohesion, develop strategy, creating future scenarios, building business model canvass etc. 
    It is by far the most powerful way to get people to engage and interact in a meaningful way about complex stuff.  There is always learning taking place, new understanding and most definitely new solutions not considered before.
    By the end of a workshop roles are clear, the landscape within which the individual, dept and organisation are role players are defined and understood and their is buy-in and commitment as the solution was created together