I read an interesting article today in the Japanese paper Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The topic was how white collar businesses men in Japan are adapting the Toyota Production System, or what we would call lean thinking, to their work. The conclusion is that at the level of principles and concepts, TPS applies just as well to non-manufacturing work as it does to improving how we make things. The important thing is to keep in mind not the tools but the underlying philosophies and behaviors that result in the so-called tools: the deliberately designed systems and processes that make up a lean workplace.
What are these principles and philosophies? Focus on the customer, improvement never ends, make problems visible, go see for yourself, involve everyone and their ideas, remove waste from all processes, and so forth. These ideas apply equally well to all situations. The one thing I took away from this particular article was a quote by Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe during a recent speech:
“There is no such thing as wasteful work in this world. It is either one or the other: work or waste.”
On the one hand this may seem obvious. On the other hand, we spend a lot of time talking about type 1 or type 2 waste and debating “is it non value added or is it waste?” Even the term “value added work” seems redundant when “work” as defined by Mr. Watanabe above implies value, or at least “not waste”. Agreeing on the definitions of waste and work is especially important when improving white collar work because the work itself is less visible than manufacturing. Realizing who our customers are, understanding what things we do which customers value, and then designing how we spend our time in minimizing waste and maximizing work (value) is the essence of good business in any business, by any name.