Lean Office

Herman Miller NT Furniture is NoT Lean

By Jon Miller Published on March 14th, 2006

At Gemba we advocate something called the “open office” both for ourselves and to support the Lean transaction efforts of our clients. The open office is exactly what it sounds like, a Lean office area with as few walls as possible. So imagine my horror reading an article in the March 2006 issue of Fast Company about a gentleman named Douglas Ball and his ideas for the cubicle of the near future.
The article cites a projected shortage of knowledge workers by 2009 as one of the motivators for new and improved cubicle design. It’s sad that companies think they have to attract talent by giving people a more comfortable personal working space. Would I rather have a sleek Douglas Ball-designed office furniture system than a bland and traditional cubicle? Frankly I don’t think I could work in either after working in an open office. The cost is simply too high.
In an open office the flow of information is much quicker than in one with walls. This results in faster learning and sharing of ideas, improved cross training, catching errors quicker, and a better understanding for everyone in the office of the status and direction of the business. Everywhere we’ve implemented the open office clients report that productivity improved by more than 30%. Space savings and quality improvements are usually greater. If you don’t value these things, fancy cubicles may be for you.
“NT is meant to undo the problems that bedevil workers consigned to open-plan systems, creating a sense of territory and privacy while maintaining the potential for collaboration.” What exactly does “bedevil” the workers in these cubicles? What problem does giving people “a sense of territory and privacy” solve? Perhaps the designer went to the gemba, observed the actual process, and identified the wastes associated with working among cubicles to come up with these improvements. But I doubt it.
The statement “And it’s designed to feel as appealing as the cockpit of a sports car–and almost as snug” gives you some idea of the target demographic of this product and the design-push mindset that went into building it. This system furniture is not necessarily designed for the job, it’s designed for a target hire.
The analogy for manufacturing would be that a “new and improved” batch and queue production system is designed because it makes the factory workers feel more secure to see a large amount of work in front of them. Even though this increases worker comfort, it is still a money-losing and inferior production system.
Herman Miller is coming out with this new and improved cubicle code-named “NT”. But caveat emptor: office furniture systems that place priority on personal territory at the cost of process flow will result in highly sub-optimized performance at best and dysfunction at worst for your organization. There is a place for space and comfort in the workplace, but design the process first around flow to enable best overall quality and cost performance. You can create a separate area with plush chairs, relaxation and comfort, when that is appropriate in the workplace.
What motivates Mr. Ball to make a new an improved cubicle? Apparently he is responsible for the original “system furniture” concept (a.k.a the cubicle) and he thinks he is making amends. Mr. Ball is quoted as saying. ‘We’ve seen what’s happened in the workplace. So much has been taken away from people–the office, the door, their privacy, and space. What we want to do here is give back.’ Not to wish anyone ill, but if I could give the gift of walls, doors, privacy and space to all of our competitors, I would happily foot the bill.
With sincere apologies to Mr. Ball, here’s to hoping the NT project meets a quick and quiet death in a marketplace that values Lean thinking and Lean transactions.

  1. Chris

    March 22, 2006 - 1:00 pm

    Jon – Well written!
    What is your direct Email address? I would like to share something with you that I think you might like for space that DOES what you seem to like.
    – Chris,

  2. Monica

    May 18, 2006 - 11:18 am

    Jon…with all due respect…you are making broad generalizations about workspaces that seem naive at best. You can’t change the fact that different offices have different needs. Some types of firms need open space. Others work best without it. Your entire argument is based on the fact that “open offices work for me”…so they should work for all. I disagree with your assessment completely.

  3. Jon Miller

    May 31, 2006 - 6:27 pm

    Thanks for your comment and for labeling me no worse than ‘naive’.
    I can only generalize based on my experience. I admit that I don’t know where you work or what you do.
    I believe that in all offices and all firms, information should flow smoothly, with the minimum of waste, and according to the needs of the customer. I have found that walls get in the way of this.
    There may be firms out there that have found ways to flow information and let people collaborate through sheetrock and wall paper just as effectively as in an open office. I haven’t seen it.
    Work space should be designed around process. Process should be designed with people in mind.
    When you design work space purely around the needs of “what works for me” you end up with bad use of space and poor processes.
    The open office may not be the final answer but it’s a step in the right direction.

  4. Connie

    November 11, 2007 - 4:01 pm

    I work in a somewhat open office in that cubicle walls are short. Result is that when someone visits one person, they’re really visiting us all. From a social and an information-sharing viewpoint, it works great. However, I work in marketing communications, and find that too frequently nearby discussions are more interesting than what I’m working on. So it is very difficult to focus to write or work on projects that require coordinating a lot of details. And, unfortunately, some personalities are incapable of remembering to practice good cubicle etiquette. I find the open office setup to diminish my productivity.

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