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Let's Stop Being Hypocrites: Work is Work

by Dan Markovitz
January 7, 2016

Let's Stop Being Hypocrites: Work is Work

by Dan Markovitz
January 7, 2016 | Comments (15)

Imagine going to the shop floor and learning that you missed your production target because the line started 10 minutes late when one of the workers was late for her shift. Or finding out that you missed your production target because one of the workers didn’t know what line he was supposed to be working on, and what specs the customer required. Or finding product defects because one of the workers wasn’t paying close attention to the product—he was talking to his mother on the phone while he was performing his job.

Ridiculous, right? Intolerable, right? You would never accept these problems in a factory.

So why do you tolerate the same issues in the office environment? Meetings start late because people don’t show up on time. When they do show up, they’re often unprepared. They miss important issues because they’re checking email. Outside of meetings, many people don’t even know what they’re supposed to do that day—they respond to the latest fire or just tackle the easiest items on their infinite to-do lists rather than holding themselves accountable for getting their important work done on time.

We often talk about knowledge workers as though they need to be treated differently from shop floor workers—They’re creative! Their work is unpredictable! They’re not machines! They’re C-suite executives!—but the truth is that they’re still production workers. And that means that we can approach their work, and solve their problems, in the same way that we approach the work and the problems on the shop floor.

Take, for example, meetings that start (and end) late. Newton did not discover the Law of Late Meetings when the apple fell on his head—they are not an inescapable reality. It’s simply a problem, and there’s nothing stopping you from sending in your SWAT team of lean six sigma obsidian belts to work on it. My guess is that you’d do it if your shop floor didn’t start on time everyday, or if a production cell didn’t run the target number of parts in an hour. 

Or, consider how rabidly lean thinkers focus on increasing the amount of value-added work and reducing the waste when analyzing a physical production process. They’ll eagerly deploy their time-motion studies, standard work combination sheets, and spaghetti charts in an effort to shave off half a second. But when was the last time we looked at the way most VPs spend their days? How much time is frittered away on emails with no value? How much time is spent clarifying or repeating requests? How much time is spent in unnecessary or poorly run meetings?

If we’re going to obsess about creating value for our customers, let’s start talking about how much of our own time we spend on value added work. According to my (very informal and very unscientific) surveys, most mid- to high-level office workers only spend about 20-30% of their day on value creating activities. The rest of their time is spent deleting reply-all emails (and griping about it).

The lean tools that are so valuable in improving the work on the shop floor are just as valuable in the office, where the work is harder to see. Leader standard work, for example, is a powerful way of reducing the “administrivia” that often wreaks havoc on your days and prevents you from engaging in coaching and problem solving with your team. Standard work for internal communication creates clarity around which communication medium you should use for different types of issues (Urgent issues? Call the cell phone. Complex issues? Face to face is best. Emotionally fraught matters? Email = bad.)

Visual controls can help drive improvement in the office environment. Scorecards for meetings enable you to spot problems (“The marketing team meeting never starts on time, while the finance meetings don’t always have clear action items.”), and develop countermeasures. Simple tally sheets and pareto charts can highlight the types of interruptions that destroy flow in your own work. And even a simple chart showing your target and actual production for the day, along with comments about what went wrong, can help you begin to analyze and improve the way work is done.

It’s time to look in the mirror and start applying lean tools to yourself and your own work. Just because you’re salaried and don’t cost the company overtime when you work at night or on the weekends doesn’t give you a free pass. 

And worse: waving the lean flag and demanding improvement on the shop floor without inspecting your own work environment makes you a hypocrite. And no one likes hypocrites.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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15 Comments | Post a Comment
Norbert Majerus January 11, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great post Dan!

I like the way you make the point by contrasting factory work with office work ... and let's not forget that we sometimes pay much higher wages in the office!

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Dan Markovitz January 11, 2016

Good point about the wage difference. I didn't mention it, but it's so true that we carelessly throw away that money. 

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Theresa Coleman-Kaiser January 11, 2016

Yes!  It is hubris to think we are so special as knowlege workers to be exempt from the standards and practices of those closest to the work that add value in our organizations.  We need to practice what we preach!  Thanks for calling this out.

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Ereina Avery January 11, 2016

I am an office worker, and I know that sometimes the production staff get upset when the same standards do not apply between the various function areas. It certainly would ease the tension between the office vs. production if the same rules applied to both!

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Suzanne van Egmond January 11, 2016

I do like the comparisons made in the first paragraphs of the article - humorous and useful to make people reflect on themselves.

I focused my lean career on lean in product development and innovation and I did experiment with the full spectrum from 'just using the manufacturing lean in R&D' to 'cautiously adapting lean to the context of R&D' over the years.

Of course, the truth is in the middle: starting wiht the one end (represented in the article) causes loads of resistance, mostly that much that you may not have a second chance for a while. At the other end, contextualizing is key to get people interested in your lean story as it shows you've understood them. Also it opens the door for comparisons  like the one presented here, make them smile and address it!

The best articles I read about this topic (what can manufacturing learn from lean product development and the other way around) are the short briefs from Katherine Radeka available from her (http://lpdrc.com/ free registration required):

# What our lean operations partners can learn from lean PD: https://leantechnologydevelopment.com/kb/value-knowledge-what-our-lean-operations-partners-can-learn-lean-pd

# What can we [lean PD SvE] learn from our friends in operations: https://leantechnologydevelopment.com/kb/lean-manufacturing-revisited-what-we-can-learn-our-friends-operations-and-lean-office

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Dan Markovitz January 11, 2016


You're absolutely right about the dangers of copying and pasting lean approaches from the shop floor to the office (or the R&D room). My point -- and I hope this comes through -- is that the fundamental lean concept of increasing value and reducing waste should be applied to the office. How you do it, and what tools you use, is entirely up to the organization. The danger (and the loss) happens when we treat the office differently. 



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Suzanne van Egmond January 12, 2016

Hi Dan - you are fully right on that one - significant results are hard to achieve if problems are addressed in silo's. A good example from my own domain is engineers building in waste through choosing another screw size every product execution or "forgetting" to have a look at ease of assembly early on such that production is stuck with it forever. 

In order to achieve lean thinking is adopted by those outside manufacturing my learning is that this type of analogies generally is not the right first step - true understanding of the context and ensure the problem is made (painfully) visible, starting with what really matters, works better and opens them up for next steps - in this phase your article is precious! 

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Dan Markovitz January 12, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply


Your comment that we have to "ensure the problem is made (painfully) visible" is spot on -- emotion makes people change, not (just) logic.

But what continues to astonish me after so many years is that so much of the office waste ALREADY IS painfully visible. I mean, who the hell wants to check email at 9pm at night, or wants to work on Sunday afternoon? Isn't that consequence sufficiently painful?

I have some psychological theories about why people continue to suffer unnecessarily, but I also think that the modern business culture makes it seem natural -- even inevitable -- that office leaders must work this way. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, all mass has gravity. . . and we have to check email at night. 



Katherine Clarke January 11, 2016

Great article Dan.

I find there is usually more resistence to Lean principles being applied in an office/administrative environment than to the shop floor, largely because the result is less immediate and/or tangible.  It is also, in many ways, more confronting for staff and particularly for Managers who do not view their work as terms of value.

There is also a reluctance to create and maintain metrics that can be used to highlight issues and celebrate achievements.  I have not yet worked out the reason for this.

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Dan Markovitz January 11, 2016


The reluctance to create and maintain metrics is common to any department -- shop floor or office. When people are afraid that metrics will be used for punishment, they'll be reluctant to create them. 

As for the overall resistance to using lean in the office environment, I believe strongly that much of the problem lies with leadership. They themselves are often the worst offenders/creators of waste. Moreover, because there's no immediate impact on the bottom line, they have little incentive to make a change. 


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James Potter January 15, 2016

It frustrates and amuses me when articles appear in the press about the need for more home working and flexible hours. These articles are always written by journalists, presumably sat in their kitchen with a laptop. I cannot see our foundry running very well with the staff working from home on "family friendly" hours!

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Lynn Whitney January 28, 2016

Yes!!  Excellent!!  And I would take it one step further, and ask how we are applying Lean in our home lives.  Obviously a bit different as 'Value-added' is not strictly financial benefit, but are we training our children?  Are there objectives?  Are breakdowns (whether poor grades or chronic lateness or no clean clothes!) addressed?  When managed right, this does not turn the family in a machine, it rather liberates the family to actually do what is valuable to the family.  :)  We teach Lean at Home at www.successful-sahm.com and you would be amazed at how many stay-at-home moms grab the opportunity to learn a few basic business & Lean principles!

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Lorra Browne April 07, 2016

Love this article. Have been studying some of Jim Benson's methods lately for personal Kanban for knowledge workers. 

Also, have long held the practice of single touch processing of emails and most days successfully get my email inbox to zero. Any backlog is added to my to do list which I monitor for "excess inventory."  I try to minimize time on email in favor of coaching kata in leader standard work routines. 

Fascinating topic...enjoy the ideas and parallels to other work types. 

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Dan Markovitz April 08, 2016

Glad that it resonated with you, Lorra. These ideas in conjunction with PK are a powerful way to ensure that you're spending more time creating value. 

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Miguel Pereda July 13, 2016

Thanks for this excellent article, I spent a great time reading it. It has been always surprising to me how the limits of lean tools (and systems) are more in our minds than in the type of processes we analyze. 

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