An October 15, 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled Why Silicon Valley Is Rethinking The Cubicle Office explains how companies such as Cisco Systems, Intel, Autodesk, and Hewlett-Packard are either testing or planning tests with the open office concept. The motivations are space savings as well as improved collaboration and communication.
We’ve written in favor of the open office as an enabler of Lean culture often in the past. We believe that structuring the workspace to be more flexible, visual and collaborative is essential to all work done in a Lean fashion. While there is no prescriptive open office design, removing barriers to communication makes sense when they are a root cause of problems in communication and the quality of information flow.
In addition to our own offices (one of which is pictured below) several of our clients have jumped into this, and though not without struggle, they have found the conversion to open office rewarding.
The WSJ article states:
Behind such tests is a growing recognition that classic, Dilbert-style cubicles have many shortcomings. For one thing, they tend to block visibility without blocking much noise from other cubes.
The article also offers some sound advice on preparing for an open office:
• Survey the work force. Would employees welcome a change?
• Talk to peers. Have other firms tried new office layouts?
• One style won’t fit all workers. Some collaborate; others work alone.
• Offer drop-in spaces for road warriors and telecommuters.
• Consider “quiet zones” for concentration and confidentiality.
• Esthetics count. Natural lighting and pleasant colors can boost morale.
The only point above I would take issue with is the first one “Would employees welcome a change?” Of course not. People don’t like change. Especially if they are used to Microsoft-style private offices. And yet change is not something we can avoid. Rather than survey the workforce, educate them on the pros and cons of the open office and gain consensus that this is the way to go to expose problems and continuously improve.
In a world that increasingly values process excellence as well as collaborative innovation, sooner or later, cubicles will have to go. Although I’ve never had to work in one, I can’t imagine of any benefits of cubicles. Privacy perhaps?
“It gives you this incredibly false sense of privacy,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of software maker Autodesk Inc., who is pushing for more open layouts at his own company.
In the first three minutes of this video, Conan O’Brien takes a humorous look at the cubicle farm at Intel, and there’s also a slapstick factory tour after minute 3:30.
Here’s another waste that an open office can eliminate:
A typical floor at Intel’s headquarters building in Santa Clara, Calif., holds 500 workers and has 17 conference rooms. The rooms are often booked but empty, because the demand leads employees to reserve them if there is a chance they will be needed
In the Lean conversion to an open office, like any Lean experiment, there will be some people who don’t like it at first. You may find that taking down the walls exposes many of the basic instabilities in people, process, and purpose within the company. Take it slowly, unless you have leadership with a strong will and good presence on the gemba.