The Lean Office & The Typewriter of the Future

I took typing classes before it was called “keyboarding”. The first manual typewriter I used was a fascinating and alien collection of metal eyes and teeth, a beautiful piece of industrial design like the one below.
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The march of progress soon replaced this with electrical models of questionable value, and then swiftly with the personal computer loaded with considerably more powerful word processing software. Today I can connect through something called the internet to a place called a blog on a thing called a laptop to make words appear here.
My typing has not yet been reduced to the two-thumb variety that results from one of those ever-so-convenient and thoroughly distracting palmtop computing device. What do we call it these days? Thumbing? Texting? I don’t know.
As much as I love the bells and whistles of modern day word processing, there are built-in interruptions and flow-stoppers on my laptop that make me wonder if we wouldn’t be better off going back to our manual typewriters, telephones, and other examples of pre-21st century office productivity tools. In a word, my laptop PC does not support Lean work flow.
Much of what we do in teaching people how to design and improve work in a Lean office has to do with identifying customers, connecting tasks and keeping the work flowing. I didn’t realize how interrupt-driven and how much like traditional batch-and-queue production working on a PC was until a recent security vulnerability found on our network caused us to disable internet access by browsers while connected to the network via VPN (virtual private network) tunnel.
In plain language this means that our network security guy made it impossible to read e-mail and browse the internet at the same time when I am out of the office. This was revolutionary. I found myself reading web pages to completion and finishing my research work flow without being reminded how full my e-mail inbox was becoming. I was completing entire e-mail messages without being interrupted by an interesting link in an incoming e-mail sending me on an internet treasure hunt. Productivity soared.
My humble laptop allows me to multi-task between the internet, spreadsheets, graphics programs, internet telephones, e-mail, document creation software, you name it. It lets me build work in process inventory to my heart’s content.
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But this is somewhat abstract. What does it mean in the world of typewriters? Let’s say I had a telephone built in to my manual typewriter. Let’s also say that I could read today’s newspaper on my typewriter. I could also use it as a drafting table and record player. How many pages do you think I would get typed?
Economist use statistics to tell us that information technology has vastly improved productivity. Perhaps. There are times like this week when I wonder if a single-function machine wouldn’t serve me better.
Richard Powers nails this sentiment in his contribution titled Literary Devices in the collection Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery when he says:
“The subdividing of all human tasks into ever-shorter switching cycles across the task bar may be the greatest impact of computers upon our lives.”
We design our work around computers and the software in them because they are the prevailing technological standard, not because they are built for the work that needs to be completed in a flow, one at a time with built-in quality. We know what happens when we design human work around inherited processes and equipment in factories. Bad things. Much of Lean manufacturing is redesigning and improving work to suit the natural workflow as defined by customer needs and the laws of physics. I hope the typewriter of the future is designed by someone who understands kaizen and Lean office principles.

3 Comments

  1. Ed

    May 31, 2006 - 10:09 pm

    Hi Jon,
    I’m interested in learning a little more around the principles of Lean office, and how they could positivly impact on our designing of systems furniture.
    Can I contact you off Blog?
    Regards
    Ed Burak
    FormwayDesign

  2. Dominique

    May 1, 2007 - 7:36 am

    Hi, Jon: I wonder if I might use a modified image of the typewriter pictured above? It’s quite nice and I want to use it as the header image for my personal blog.
    Do let me know if you disapprove and I shall take it down forthwith.

  3. Jon Miller

    May 2, 2007 - 7:43 pm

    Hi Dominique. Let me check and e-mail you a response.
    Jon