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How Do Lean Concepts Apply in an Office Environment?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

How does lean apply in an office environment? I’m excited by the ideas but can’t figure out learning to see when there’s nothing to see.

Work is work, whether on the factory floor or in an office, but I do see your point. In manufacturing you can actually see components move around and build into products. In an office, all you see are people at their desks.

What is the problem we’re trying to solve here? The question is not so much what you see when you look at the office, but what each person sees as they do their work. After all, they know what is what – they work there. Let us take a step back and ask ourselves what are we looking for:

  1. Is the purpose of the work clear? Can every person at their desk clearly see what is good work from the point of view of the customer (final customers as well as the next person in the process) and what causes customer problems?
  2. Is the next task clear? Can every person move from their current task to the next with confidence? How can they tell that the next task is the right task to do? In a factory, this is pretty much defined by the process – although you’d be surprised by the amount of ambiguity there – but in an office environment this is a tricky question and much more of a challenge. Very often, a person will take the next file on the pile or in the inbox, or respond to who yells loudest, but is that the correct next step?
  3. Is it easy to spot the difference between a task well done or not? Again, can a person feel confident about her work? If you break down a job task by task, how do you distinguish OK from Not-OK? This is a deeper question because “standard” files or projects have many specific circumstances requiring a good deal of human judgment. Customers differ, conditions also, and so on. There is more to doing office work than copying the right information on the right cell on a spreadsheet, and the question is how do they know what’s OK and what’s not.
  4. Do they feel confident they can call out when something is doubtful and that management will help out? I’ve seen many administrative offices where the unspoken rule is “keep your head down.” Bosses have a natural tendency to shoot the messenger, downplay difficulties or consider that someone too keen in doing a great job is a troublemaker. A classic case in office environments is that one person will be overloaded with a huge case file and difficult clients while another will be coasting and this will never be addressed other than through office drama. How do you create a culture of  “problems first” where people can call out when they come across something iffy?
  5. Are initiatives valued and is there a clear path to making suggestions? Precisely because work is not visible (and consequences of changes are hard to assess), there is a tradition of frowning on initiatives in office work. The assumption is that any employee’s initiative or suggestion is about making their job easier at the expense of others – this is plain silly, but needs to be confronted. The question therefore is how to create a clear path for suggestions and how to train team leaders and supervisors to welcome and support initiatives rather than actively discourage them.

Where to Start?

It’s true that contrarily to manufacturing environment, none of these questions have set responses, so there’s a fair amount of fiddling to create the right conditions to answer these 5 questions with the teams themselves.

A good place to start is to ask the team:

  1. What is a good day from the customer’s point of view?
  2. What is a good day from your point of view?

Typically, a good day is a day where work has progressed as planned and without aggravating incidents.

The next step will be to put up a board to visualize the plan for the whole team (usually, work is defined in the computer system at individual level, but rarely shared) and share the backlog and problems encountered. As the office creates its own visual controls to see together and understand together what is a good day/bad day, they usually start acting together to rebalance their workloads and fix problems.

As a team leader or supervisor you will then see odd skill gaps appear – not everyone is comfortable with every task, and one person comfortable with a specific task in a given condition might not like doing so in other circumstances. As a result the office will have evolved many unseen workarounds for people to work through the day avoiding work they dislike. As this is revealed by the visual control system, you need to be there to help people deal with their weak spots and support them.

Surprisingly, lean in an office is often easier than in a factory cell – no walls to tear down, no large machines to move around. As people feel more comfortable with facing problems together they quite naturally come up with process improvement ideas. The main barrier is the computer system. Very (too) often they’ll claim work would flow fare better if only the system … (input your favorite gripe). This is certainly true, but something that you need to take up with IT and … it will take 18 months to tell you it can’t be done. The knack is asking the teams to find out small tricks to better deal with the system as it is. If you tend fields next to a river, you have to deal with the river’s ups and downs. The system is a given at first – how do we work with it. In office work the advice of Toyota’s sensei is more relevant than ever: think deeply, try immediately, start very small and focus right away on the next improvement.

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