Getting Started with Lean in the Office

One of the most common misconceptions about doing Lean in the office is that there is a different set of Lean tools for the office. We hear “What symbols should we use for value stream mapping in an engineering process?” or “What are the unique definitions of value and waste in knowledge work?” or “How can we do kaizen in the office when the everything we do is non-standard?”
These questions are revealing of the barriers people face when approaching Lean in the office from a Lean production perspective. These are not the right questions. Whenever we start applying Lean thinking to any process, no matter how familiar, we need to make ourselves humble and return to first principles.
Many of us are lazy and jump to the solution (cells, kanban, SMED, etc.) because there are so many models are patterns available to draw from. The conclusions you jump to are less true the further you go from discrete manufacturing, where Lean manufacturing was born.
Returning to first principles when you are getting started with Lean in the office means seeing clearly. With knowledge work this requires effort, called visual management or simply visualization. There are a few simple things you can do:
Make today’s work visible. How many calls must we make or take today? How many pages must be written, checked or submitted today? If it is not clear what work everyone needs to finish on a given day of work, there is no way to measure objectively whether the day was a success or not, and why.
Make the process visible. How does the work flow? Where is the work done? Where can it be done? Who can do the work? Use a skill matrix to cross train people and this will enable smoother flow of information.
Make the status visible. Where is the work now? Is it ahead or behind? This should be immediately apparent in a Lean office. If it requires meetings, or if you have to ask, you aren’t managing visually.
Make the waste visible. As a general rule, anything that gets in the way of doing today’s work is waste, variability or overburden, and needs to be removed.
Make the target clear. For a target, the closer to ideal the better. Removing waste, variability and overburden is the crux of it but you need context, or the “so what?” How does achieving the target make us safer and more secure, improve our quality, make our jobs easier, and how will customers reward us for this?
Make it clear what you are doing to get rid of waste. Post kaizen newspapers, A3 reports or other action plans and countermeasures to problems. The what, who and when should be obvious and cry out for action each day. It’s okay to celebrate your wins.
In a word information flow is communication. Humans are wired to process the majority of our information visually. As much as we try to say verbally, we communicate visually. Getting started with Lean in the office means getting rid of barriers to visualization.

4 Comments

  1. Brian Sherwood Jones

    September 7, 2007 - 10:00 am

    The visibility could be electronic and the means of supporting distributed work; sounds like the resource that a manager of a distributed team needs.

  2. Yasser

    September 8, 2007 - 9:32 am

    Its great to read about applying lean in service , as its always related to manfacture

  3. Sonika

    January 20, 2009 - 1:45 am

    I really liked it…In manufacturing we give names to flow as oe piece flow…..or draw spagetti diagrams but inoffice we can do the same as well!! And friends believe me it helps…

  4. Sharon Oenning

    June 8, 2010 - 6:17 pm

    Good reference material