Yes, You Can Implement Lean in the Office
May 21, 2020
Stop focusing on the terminology and work on creating a smooth, predictable flow of information.
Is it difficult to translate lean concepts and methods from the shop floor to the office? Based on what I hear from those who have suffered through some especially ineffective versions of Office Lean, I’d say the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Visual factory is translated into taped squares around computers and staplers. Kanban and takt time are translated into breaking work down into elements that don’t make sense. Practitioners scold office staff about their “batch thinking” without helping them figure out just what their batches are. After all that, lean champions are nonplussed to find that the methods that worked so well in operations meet with resistance when introduced to the administrative staff.
If you’re one of the office denizens who has found him or herself in this position, I sympathize with you. It’s not your fault that you and others have trouble translating lean language and principles from manufacturing to the office environment. Most lean literature addresses lean as if it’s just about enabling repeatable outputs from a given process. But all that stuff about takt time and kanban doesn’t translate easily, does it? Even the “trying to be helpful” folks who talk about “reducing batch size” in administrative processes aren’t much help; in many administrative processes, the batch size is already just one!
On the other hand, I’ve run into folks in administrative roles who argue that lean thinking doesn’t apply to their processes at all. Here are some of the objections to “administrative process improvement” that I’ve run into over the years:
“We’re always dealing with different situations. There are just too many variables that we have to deal with to be able to create a standard process.”
It’s true that administrative processes deal with a lot of variability. Vendors have to be paid differently, customers require different shipping methods, employees have different benefits, and on and on.
On the other hand, manufacturing has lots of different materials that get made into lots of different products so the notion that only the office “deals with lots of different situations” isn’t true.
The fact is that a lot of variability in most administrative processes comes from failures of the processes themselves. Often, when I’m working with a team to map the current state of an administrative process, someone will say, “Here’s the next step. Unless the previous step went wrong, then we have to take these ten steps to fix it. Only then can we get to that next step.”
Getting rid of this variability, that is, in fact, controllable, is the very essence of “lean thinking.”
“Our processes cross department boundaries. We do our part well, but it falls apart when it gets to other departments. Lean thinking won’t help that.”
I once worked with an accounting department that focused on its accounts payable process. One of the “variables” the team insisted it had to consider was creating payments for items that had been received but for which there was no Purchase Order (PO).
“But”, I said, “Company policy is that everything has a PO, right?”
“So, if something arrives for which there is no PO, it’s either arrived in error or someone has violated company policy, right?”
“So, such items should be immediately tossed in the trash or returned to sender, right?”
Well … It’s not that simple.
But it was just that simple. The accounting team was doing lots of extra work because others in the organization (including senior managers) weren’t following clear company policy. We addressed it, essentially, by going to senior management and saying, “Do your job and assure that violations of clear company policy are addressed!” To its credit, senior management followed through, accounting team productivity went up, vendors got paid on time, and everybody was a winner.
“We’re creative. Creative activity can’t be put into a standard process.”
A past client designed and produced women’s clothing. They produced new designs four times a year. Inevitably, they were rushing at the last minute, literally burning the midnight oil, to get prototypes produced to take to trade shows.
As we dug into the design process (such as it was), it turned out that designers worked separately, not sharing much in the way of ideas or information. This meant that lots of different ideas had to be crammed together at the last minute … and some ideas got left behind. All this was stressful for everyone involved.
We came up with a “process” in which the different designers met regularly to share ideas. My “standard process speech” was, “You need to put these meetings on the calendar and you need to hold them on schedule!” To their credit, they did just that—and they found that the meetings actually enhanced creativity.
So, how does an organization go about applying lean methods to administrative processes? Well, I’ll be leaving out some details and nuances for brevity’s sake but here are the basics:
The Path to Successful Office Lean
1. Pull the team together. Buy them lunch.
2. Develop a project charter that provides a narrative as to the nature of the process the team is focused on and why it’s being addressed.
3. Review that project charter with management.
4. Create a current state map of the process. Create a map that assumes everything goes as it’s supposed to. Don’t include loops and sub-processes that kick into motion when errors, problems, and delays occur.
5. Now, here’s the fun step: Go back to each of the process steps and have the team brainstorm “What can go wrong at this step?” Write the brainstormed items down.
6. Get the team to identify the worst process problems (the “things that can go wrong”).
7. Develop and implement solutions to the worst process problems.
Notice that there’s no mention of kanban, takt time, batch size or any of the other lean jargon from the shop floor. And that’s because lean is and was always about creating smooth, predictable flow of information and materials through a process. The seven steps outlined above will help you do just that.
Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors.
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