Lean Office

Doing More with Less in the Lean Office

By Jon Miller Updated on March 6th, 2019

“An increasing number of local companies are shrinking their employees’ work spaces” begins an article in the Puget Sound Business Journal titled Offices Getting Smaller. Well known firms in our neighborhood including Boeing and Washington Mutual are moving into smaller work cubicles and more conference spaces.

Scott Harrison, President and CEO of Bellevue, WA workspace design firm BarclayDean Interiors is quoted “There is a drive for creative and innovative ways to do more with less physical space.”

The article claims the focus on reducing space to reduce overhead cost while promoting teamwork, collaboration and innovation is part of a national trend:

According to the International Facilities Management Association, per-employee square footage has been on the decline for years: from 589 in 1994, to 406 in 2002 — a 31 percent decrease.

Who has four hundred square feet per person? That’s just an amazing amount of work space per person. You have to be careful with statistics. For instance last week three of us visited a tier 1 automotive supplier employing 900 people in 500,000 square feet of factory, office and warehouse. That’s an average of 555 square feet per person. Of course this is not a meaningful number, but 400 square feet of office space per person is a cubicle 20 feet by 20 feet. That is ridiculous.

The article reports:

Washington Mutual Inc. plans to save more than $15 million a year by consolidating workers into a single tower — the new WaMu Center next to the Seattle Art Museum — and reducing per-employee square footage from 264 square feet to 218, said Kent Wiegel, a senior vice president in charge of the move.

Is “how much space per person” even the right question to be asking? I could not find a description how the per-employee space was calculated in the IFMA report, so I have to assume that it is total space divided by total employees, including all shared spaces.

At the Gemba office near Seattle, Washington we live in less than 380 square feet of office space if you do not count the shared conference room, toilets, and walkway to the exits. In this space we have 8 desks, two arm chairs, a sofa, two bookshelves, four filing cabinets, an assembly and shipping area for training materials and workbooks, and all office equipment except the copier, which we share with another company.

Perhaps a better measurement would be value-added per square foot. Who cares if you use more space if people are generating more innovative ideas, solving problems for customers, and contributing to profit? The Lean Office will beat a non-Lean office hands down in this measure due to improved visibility, flow and ability to catch errors and solve problems early. Space is reduced naturally as workflow and business processes are redesigned to achieve these things.

The point is not the amount of space but how well you use the space you have to get work done. Again from the article:

According to Boeing spokesman Robert Jorgensen, the switch was intended to help reduce real estate costs and to encourage teamwork. The space features a variety of small- to mid-sized “collaboration rooms” which, when combined with an open floor plan, are intended to help people work together.

Just like putting factory workers in u-shaped arrangements of machines without point of use storage, cross training, pokayoke, and jidoka won’t really help you achieve standard work and one peice flow, putting office workers in “collaboration rooms” and open floor plans aren’t enough to guarantee teamwork and improve productivity.

The workspace needs to serve both the needs of the people and the performance of the business processes. The workplace should enable people to feel safe and comfortable, and the workspace should enable processes to flow and be visual. The workspace should allow people to make changes to the physical layout as needed in response to changes in personnel, customer needs, or business process design.

Before moving your office staff into smaller cubicles in the name of innovation and lower overhead, take a class on Lean Office principles or visit a real life Lean office and empower them to design how they collaborate and meet the requirements of internal and external customers.

Frank Mirabelli, Senior VP of Univar USA Inc., is moving his 300 person team from a cubicled office into a 2-wall plan with pods of three people. Said Mr. Mirabelli “we spent a lot of time making sure this is an employee-first environment” even though they have less space, according to the article.

If the design was really employee-first, it would be a spacious lounge with expensive chairs and gee-whiz desks. In Lean Office workspace design it is process first. Otherwise you will serve neither the profit nor the people.

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