Lean Office

Walls & Cubicles: Waste Multipliers in the Office

By Jon Miller Published on April 19th, 2005

The key to Lean in the office is good information flow. In fact, all Kaizen activities done in the office should have this as their primary goal. One key factor we use in determining how Lean an office is (and if we can help them) is the height of cubicle walls. Here is my rule of thumb:
Walled offices = disaster
6ft cubicles = joke
4ft cubicles = changeable
No walls = good foundation for Lean
Why the focus on the cubicle wall height? Well until recently, it was “just because walls are not Lean”. Recently, however, a client told me how walls between people in the office multiply all of the 7 wastes, namely, Defects, Inventory, Processing, Waiting, Motion, Transportation, and Overproduction. Let’s start with Defects. The more walls between people the less likely they’ll get the right information and work will be accurate. There is a much higher chance of re-work, or as we would define it, defects. Errors are not caught as quickly, so the cost to correct the error increases.
Inventory, in this case Work-in-Process documents or information, will have a tendency to pile up if there are walls between people. Also, there is a higher chance that more inventory of office supplies since people will not be able to see the unused (and available) inventory at another person痴 desk or office. Purchasing agents will tend to buy more at one because that will be the easier thing to do, especially if the purchasing agent for those parts is under a lot of time pressure.
Processing waste which takes the place of meetings and updates is a large factor of life with walls around people. I work in an environment without walls, and it’s amazing how much I pick up through osmosis. We don’t have to have a meeting, because we all know what’s going on. There’s a tendency to struggle less with problems on your own when you’re in an open office. If you’re walled in, you may struggle with something for 15 minutes before deciding to get help. In an open environment, it’s more like less than 5 minutes.
Another common processing waste is when you have no visibility of the fact that some people are working on the wrong things (lower priority). After kaizen when the walls come down, it becomes quickly obvious what are the hottest projects that need help, what projects can be put down, and who has time to help.
Waiting definitely occurs when there are walls. The person we need to talk to isn’t there or it’s just too much of a pain to walk over to their desk to see if they really are there. Jobs wait too as they go from one in-box to the next.
Taking down the walls can eliminate a lot of motion waste. Because you can’t just see if someone is there, you have to call them. They also increase the use of e-mail which should maybe be a separate waste category all on its own!
Because you can稚 see if someone is available, quickly talk to them to get the information you need, and move on with your work instead you spend time writing e-mails, setting up meetings, and generally no adding value (processing waste).
Transportation: folders and other jobs tend to have to go around from office to office a lot more when you’re walled in.
Overproduction: Since it’s practically impossible to see if someone or some department is overwhelmed, work will continue to come in regardless of how efficient those people can process it. Some will be working like crazy while others will have their feet up on their desk. So in the future, if you have to prove to a skeptic why you want to take those walls out, just go through the 7 wastes with him / her. Hopefully you’ll convince them and increase the efficiency of information flow in your office.

  1. Steve

    March 31, 2010 - 6:22 am

    This blog entry ignores the majority of factors that contribute to productive and efficient work.

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