Work in Process in Knowledge Work

The Lean principles of the seven types of waste, flow, building in quality at each step, and making small improvements locally each day are all readily accepted by knowledge workers with a minimum of explanation and demonstration.
Visualization and standardization are more difficult for knowledge workers to understand and accept. Both are very powerful and essential to a Lean office. When knowledge work is done at a computer, as it often is today, making the effort to visualize this in analog fashion seems like a non value added activity. And perhaps it is. Yet making the progress of work and the current status of a project visible is the first step towards solving problems and improving flow. You can’t fix a problem unless you can’t see it, and we can’t see inside your head.
Standardization in knowledge work can be as simple as reusing prior art, having different people use common tools and a common process, or begin by having each same person follow their own standardized process for each unique request. Knowledge workers are creative by nature so part of the resistance to standardization comes form the perception that this creativity will be limited. In fact when new methods are tried, if these are tried as improvements to a standard, there is plenty of room for experimentation and creativity.
When we teach knowledge workers how to apply Lean concepts, quite often one of the mental breakthrough for them comes when they understand how inventory applies to their work. At first glance knowledge workers will think “I don’t have any inventory.” Quite the contrary.
An example of work in process in knowledge work would be the 15 blog entry ideas that I have saved as drafts. Each one has some time put into it. Some of them may never see the light of day. After many weeks I may forget what the idea for the blog entry was all about. Or I may lose interest in the topic. Work in process in knowledge work may not take up space and have a carrying cost as physical inventory does, but it does use up time and capacity (cash), and it may also become obsolete more easily than physical inventory.
When this type of work in process inventory for knowledge work occupies physical space and materials in the form of prototypes, samples, files, drafts of documents, etc. they can have all of the associated wastes as production inventory.
How to reduce this work in process in knowledge work? Visualizing this work in process in knowledge work is the first step. It is important to become aware of it as waste. It is important to have a clear customer and a clear request for each piece of knowledge work WIP. We’ve found that often just visualizing this type of knowledge work done in office environments can result in a person walking by say “We don’t need that anymore,” or “So and so is also working on that.”
There are some good online solutions and software applications that allow tracking of projects and sharing of visibility. For project teams divided by time and space, these provide a critical link. In the interest of going to gemba, maintaining face to face information sharing for people in the same office, and resolving issues in real time (flow), there is a benefit to analog visualization of knowledge work.
Another way to kaizen knowledge work WIP is to create a standard for the amount of knowledge work WIP you allow and limiting how many projects or ideas you work on at any one time. Only accept or introduce one new project or work in process every time you complete one.
From personal experience this is very hard to do. I have yet to see excellent examples of flow and pull in knowledge work, but we’re working on it through visualization and standardization.


  1. Chris Nicholls

    March 22, 2007 - 6:32 am

    Hi Jon
    Thank you for another interesting blog posting on Visualisation & Standardisation. During the next fiscal term here at RPL we are focussing our Kaizen activity on improving visualisation in the Manufacturing Areas. I may now also consider the Office Areas too although it is always very difficult to persuade the support people to think lean and practice Kaizen.
    Your comments about part finished blog inventory have however shattered my illusion of you just sitting at your PC dashing off very accomplished blog entries right off the top of your head.
    Anyway keep the flow going don’t get writers’ block
    Thanks and regards

  2. Jon Miller

    March 22, 2007 - 2:10 pm

    Hi Chris,
    There is nothing like doing visualization in both the office and factory to show that you mean business. It’s not a shop floor tool, it’s a fundamental way of managing.
    Writer’s block is not something I have a problem with. Thus the WIP.

  3. David J. Anderson

    March 23, 2007 - 10:08 am

    I think you’ll be interested in this example posted on my blog earlier this month where we have visualization of a pull kanban system for software maintenance in action at Corbis (Bill Gates’ private company in Seattle, WA). Kanban In Action
    Regards, David

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