Why Heijunka – Part 2

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

Last night we discussed why we would use heijunka in a manufacturing environment in response to a readers question.  Tonight I want to focus in on why we would want to use heijunka, or leveling, in an office environment.   

This could be a very short post tonight as I could easily say that we use heijunka in the office for the same reasons we use it in manufacturing.  But as you probably guessed I will not be taking that approach this evening even though it is a true statement.

Leveling in a Restaurant

One place we can see the importance of leveling in an non manufacturing environment is at “sit down” restaurants.  Normally when you walk into your favorite steak house (I prefer Saltgrass) there is a person standing there studying a diagram/layout of the restaurant. 

Since there are a finite numbers of waiters and waitresses (and tables for that matter) each customer must be carefully seated. If care is not taken a particular waiter may be stressed to the max while another waitress may be standing around complaining as she is not making any tips. 

Also, customers may grow frustrated as they see their waiter running around and taking a long time to fill up their drink while the waitress is off talking with her mates. Thus, normally customers are seated in a balanced/level manner. 

Eventually, on busy nights, all tables may become occupied in which case leveling flies out the door.  Now we enter into the world of queueing theory.

Leveling Office Work

On the shop floor we produce widgets of some type.  In an office we also create widgets.  Only these widgets are things such as invoices, quotes, BOM’s, drawings, etc.  In some industries these front office tasks may even be a constraint.  So understanding how to be level or smooth work in the front office area is equally, and in some cases more, important than the shop floor.

Accounts Payable Example

Let’s see how leveling could help an accounts payable department.  In this situation the widgets being produced are invoices.  The AP clerks could easily just fly by the seat of the pants and all work on whatever they want expediting the “hottest” item when someone yells loud enough. 

Or these same clerks could determine how many invoices they generally process in a week or month.  From this they could calculate the takt time (available time / demand) and pitch (takt time x packout quantity or in this case reasonable amount of invoices needed at any one time). 

Armed with this information they could use a heijunka box or heijunka wheel to level the amount of work each AP employee is expected to do. Bob, for example, would now be able to look at the heijunka wheel/box and know exactly what he was to do and when to do it.  This will help Bob pace his work and also ask for help if he falls behind.  This would be similar to a Toyota employee stopping the line when a problem is noticed.

Balancing Act

Many times people like Bob have other tasks to do in addition to process invoices.  All these other items can and should be taken into consideration when determing how to level load his responsibilities.  Nothing is more frustrating to an employee than being asked to do 12 hours of work in an 8 hour day.In this sense, the waitress and AP clerk are more alike than many people realize.

Additional Resources

To be sure, heijunka is one of the more advanced lean concepts.  You would not normally begin your lean journey by implementing heijunka.  Instead, focusing on value stream mapping, standard work, flow, pull, and defect reduction first is wise.  With this said, when you are ready to look at heijunka let me offer the following articles/books as excellent resources.

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