Trying Out Herman Miller’s New Cubicle: Not for the Lean Office

Herman Miller is credited for introducing the original cubicle. Instead of recognizing poor design and listening to the voice of customer, they have designed a better cube or according to designer Douglas Ball “an environment that offered a sense of territory and privacy, but also openness, all within a 6′ x 8′ footprint.”
In the June 2006 issue of Fast Company staffers from the magazine tried out these new cubicles for ten days:
“…we took a new unit for a spin. A four-pod system–two 6′ x 8′ cubicles and two 6′ x 6′–was installed in the middle of Fast Company’s offices. The pods featured a sampling of window patterns–pebbled, ribbed, etched–with varying levels of transparency, on the walls and doors.”
Although these new cubicles are far from an open office plan, the testers encuntered a typical privacy concerns that we hear about the open room Lean office layouts:
“Yikes! I just realized Jen can see my whole computer screen. Guess I’ll have to cut back the time I spend on the Zappos.com shoe site.” I guess you will. But wait, she has a better solution… “I position my movable hanging-file rack in her sight line for more privacy.” Ah, human ingenuity.
The new cubicle that is supposed to offer territory and privacy doesn’t seem to do that. Remarks another Fast Company staffer:
“I’ve been in here long enough to be comfortable with the space but not happy with it. It’s too small for people to enter and interact with me.”
Walls and doors keep waste in and keep teamwork out. Open office = problem solved.
But don’t we need privacy so people can have private conversations in an office?
“There’s a fight going on in an adjoining cube. I can hear it all. I feel like joining in, even though I have no idea who’s right. So much for auditory privacy.”
Yes, let’s keep the fighting behind thick walls and heavy doors rather than expose disagreements early and often so people can communicate, dispel misunderstandings and get on with working productively and safely. Lift rug, sweep problems under rug, lower rug. So much for problem solving in cubicle land.
There’s a glass sliding door between adjacent cubicles to let people communicate while maintaining privacy. How does it feel?
“It’s great being able to chat with Jen when we want, but here’s the problem: When you’re done talking, it seems rude to slide the shutter closed. What’s the etiquette for this?”
What’s etiquette in normal social interaction (free from cubicle walls)? You smile and break eye contact or offer other appropriate social cues. The sliding glass shutter is just an awkward reminder that you are walled in.
“I’m starting to miss all my stuff. Linda says the idea is a paperless office, but I have no real place to put my books and can’t personalize this workspace with posters. Am I more productive in this space? I may be. I have nowhere to go, so I just sit here and work.”
As I said yesterday, designing a Lean office with productive, customer-focused, high quality workflow is not about the amount of space per person, the ability to personalize with posters or not, or having a papered or paperless office. Processes should be designed around Lean principles.
Redesigning the cubicle is a waste of time. Cubicles are based on a flawed philosophy of work that is command and control rather than empowering, denies collaboration, optimizes around individual processes rather than around customer-centered workflow, and seeks to bury problems rather than make them visible and fix them. The Lean Office is the open office because following Lean principles leads you to it.

2 Comments

  1. Dave Wetzel

    August 18, 2006 - 7:06 am

    This article was a hoot. I have created cubicle-less offices off and on for years and really appreciated the humor. Structural change is a wonderful thing when it is combined with lean.

  2. A Human

    August 29, 2006 - 12:17 pm

    I agree that cubicles are generally awful. We need offices to work in, not boxes. The purposes behind business may be to make money, but ultimately I believe the root cause is to make life better for people. That said, I think we need to be lean in business but not at the expense of comfort and humane treatment of people.