Lean Office

This Is An Experiment

By Jon Miller Published on August 15th, 2006

A few weeks ago when I returned to our office after having been on the road for several weeks there were some big changes. The entire layout of the office had been flipped from one side to the other. This is not so hard to do since we have put wheels on all furniture in our office. Our next big challenge is to put the bookshelves on wheels (they are 72 inches tall and 48 inches wide) and making them mobile. We will probably need smaller book shelves.
Rearranging the office opened up a lot of space and changed the flow quite a bit. I can’t say I like it yet. I don’t dislike it either, it’s still a work in progress. The beauty of a Lean Office is that whenever something else bothers one of us for long enough, we can pull some things one direction and another until it works better.
Just today we made more changes, pulling desks this way and that, pulling a filing cabinet away from one corner. It didn’t take much longer than 10 minutes and everyone was back to work. It didn’t take another five minutes to find more things that needed changing. The latest moves solved some problems, exposed some others.
The open office aspect of the Lean Office requires maintaining harmony between easy collaboration and noise, visibility and privacy, access to people and distraction by people. Every day we learn what works and what needs to be improved. The open office layout is not without fault, but putting up walls is simply no longer an option.
When I returned to the office to find this new arrangement, something else caught my eye. A sheet on the wall had the words “This is an experiment. Please do not remove.” written on it. I will tell you more of what this experiment is at another time, if our product development effort in this area succeeds.
It occurred to me that these were very wise words, and that sheet with these words should be part of every kaizen event, every Lean transformation activity, every ongoing culture change and continuous improvement effort.
By announcing “this is an experiment” you are creating an environment where it is safe to question and be questioned. That is the nature of experimentation. When it is an experiment, the change is not a de facto reality that must be followed because it is decreed as an initiative championed by a senior manager. The experiment may be reversed. It may be changed again. Saying and posting the words “this is an experiment” invites input and involvement by the people who will be most affected by the change, have the most knowledge of the process, and may have the most to lose if the change effort fails.
Placing the words “this is an experiment” at the workplace where kaizen is being attempted will make people curious. What is it? Will it work? Can I try? What if we did it like this? These are some of the reactions you can expect. Announcing “this is an experiment” invites people to use their minds, experience and creativity and join in the experiment.
Curiosity, playfulness and the opportunity to influence change in your work every day are some of the things that foster innovation and invention. This culture of experimentation and innovation will not only make a better workplace for people, it is good for business.
Saying “this is an experiment” should not signal that “we may decide not to change if we don’t like it”. It means that we will try something else until a better solution is found.
It’s important to note that experiments should follow the scientific method and they should test theories. Will it be faster, cheaper, better if we do this one piece at a time? Can we improve quality by inspecting at every process or by inspecting randomly at the end? Is an open office more productive or not? Whether the answer to these questions in your case is yes or no, the next step should be the “5 why” understanding of the true reasons so that further improvement action can be taken.
The sheet with “This is an experiment” can be used for visual management just like the words “this is the standard” or “this is what good quality looks like” or “this is the hourly production target” can be. These words are at the heart of the philosophy of kaizen. Try them next time, as an experiment.

  1. Dave

    August 22, 2006 - 8:32 am

    When I was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in ’88, I-80 had a sign right before you got into town saying something like “test surface road” or something like that. It bugged me; what was the surface? Should I notice the diff? is it safer or more dangerous? Is it toxic? Are my “boys” being subjected to something as I drove over this road? Where can I find out what is going on?
    This sign stayed on the road for years, even until I moved up here in ’99, where my wife seen the sign. She asked “what does that sign mean? Are your “boys” being affected by this road?” (ok, maybe she didn’t ask that last part). Eventually, we noticed the sign was gone; did we pass? Was the road successful? Has a standard been raised as a result of this road, or did the test surface fail? If it failed, is the old surface coming back, or a newer, better one coming?
    The point is that simply putting up a “this is an experiment” without clearly providing the scenarios for people might not encourage feedback – or at least the right kind. Something like “this is an experiment, for more info read this” & provide the info on the experiment, which should include the length the experiment is being tried if it isn’t also posted, would probably be more effective…IMO.

  2. Jon Miller

    August 22, 2006 - 9:13 am

    Thanks Dave. That’s a good point and a great example.

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