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.

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

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.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.