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Practicing Lean Fundamentals in an Office Environment


Applying lean principles in service organizations and administrative processes within manufacturing companies often confounds companies. Lean faculty member and author Drew Locher offers four key steps to focus on for success.

Creating Lean Flow in Office and Service Processes

There are many well documented lean successes in manufacturing applications.  However, service organizations and administrative processes within manufacturing companies often struggle with applying these concepts.  A big problem is that companies tend to focus strictly on lean “tools,” and fail to fundamentally change how work is performed and how it flows, and therefore do not realize the significant results that can be achieved.  It’s discouraging and can lead to the abandonment of lean altogether.  Staff members then view the effort as “just another program”—and a failed one, at that.

Another pitfall of many lean office and service efforts is the lack of alignment to an organization’s strategy and key business objectives.  Upon learning a new tool, people tend to go out and seek an application.  Such well-intended efforts do not always provide the results expected because they are not aligned with the key objectives of the business, or do not address a key business need.  

In such situations, it is management that tends to become discouraged, and once again the effort is abandoned.  This is not due to the ineffectiveness of lean concepts, but rather the fact that management did not thoughtfully consider the particular business processes that need to be re-designed in order for the organization to realize its objectives.  Alignment is critically important. 

The lean office and service effort should focus on the key business processes that directly affect the organization’s ability to deliver value to its customers, such as the processing of orders.The lean office and service effort should focus on the key business processes that directly affect the organization’s ability to deliver value to its customers, such as the processing of orders.  The business will then realize near immediate benefits, and customers will quickly see the results.  However, there can be other processes that should be addressed for other business reasons.

At one company, the new hire process required immediate attention since there was a pressing need to effectively and efficiently employ new associates to meet increasing demand.  At another company, the focus was on processes that would help generate working capital, as there was an urgent need for cash.  Various accounting related processes were addressed such as supplier returns and rebates, customer invoice disputes and resolution.  It is incumbent on each organization to develop a set of clear objectives, identify the business processes that relate to them, and determine which need to be addressed.

Lean Tool Pitfalls

Still another pitfall with the tool focus is the tendency to make isolated changes within departments and functions.  Once again the fundamental way work is performed and flows often goes unchanged.  The application of any tool must be done in the context of the overall business process re-design in order to realize the full benefits. 

In other companies, the “lean office” or “lean service” effort is confined to trying to better organize the workplace through 5S techniques.  These organizations fail to implement the key lean concepts of standard work, flow, and level pull. 

Why do so many companies struggle with the application of common-sense Lean concepts to office and service processes?  The stock reason is that the nature of work performed in the office or service is different.  How is it different? Most people point to the variability of the work, the multi-tasking, the unpredictability of demand, and the “creative” nature of the work

And it’s true: work performed in the office and in services does tend to be highly variable.  However, this occurs for several reasons, most of which are created by the companies themselves.  For example, the lack of standard work, and its continued acceptance by management is a primary cause for variability in office and services.  The lack of standard work often results in inconsistent information quality, which requires extended time to address and correct.

Another source of demand variability is batch processing, or performing an activity periodically, often for the convenience of the staff member.  Individuals do not realize that they are batching and the impact it has on downstream processes.  The good news is that you can reduce variability through the application of lean concepts.

Let’s cover four basic steps to the application of lean in office and service workplaces:

  • Stabilize
  • Standardize
  • Visualize
  • Improve

The approach you’ll need to take depends on your starting point.  If your process is highly unstable, in that it has an inconsistent and often unacceptable output, you’ll first want to stabilize it. If your process is already stable, though, you can start to standardize the way in which your processes are performed—in other words, identify and agree upon the best way to perform each activity or process and ensure that different people perform the same process consistently.

Once your process has been standardized, you need to provide visibility to the process within the organization.  And of course, your ultimate goal is to improve all processes on a continuous basis.

Once your process has been standardized, you need to provide visibility to the process within the organization.  And of course, your ultimate goal is to improve all processes on a continuous basis.

Let’s explore each step in more detail. But first, a caution: the importance of accurately identifying your starting point can’t be overemphasized. For instance, if you attempt to standardize an unstable process, you’re not likely to see desirable results.  Let’s take a look at “stabilize” first.


The objective of this step is to create predictable and repeatable outputs.  In office and service environments, “we never know what we’re going to get”, is a common mantra. But this isn’t the case with manufacturing processes; even when they’re not as efficient as they could be, in the end, there is an assurance that the product will perform as the customer expects.

So what’s the difference? In manufacturing environments, inspection and test operations provide this assurance.  However, in office and service environments, the “product” is not as tangible, so it can be more difficult to assure the quality of the output.  In service environments, in particular, the near real-time creation and consumption of a service can make quality assurance problematic.

If your office or service process is incapable of delivering a consistent output, then your lean effort must begin here.  You need to identify the source of the instability, which most often is an inadequate understanding of customer needs.  In rare cases, you may even find a complete disregard to meeting customer needs.  “The customer will get it when we say so.”  Although you may not hear someone say them outright, the same meaning can be communicated by the continual poor performance of a given organization, department or individual.  In other words, service providers no longer hear the “voice of the customer”.

In these situations, you’ll start fairly small, by clearly defining the needs of the customer, documenting them in simple ways (think checklists), and providing training to office and service personnel.  Interestingly, implementing pull systems can provide much needed stability. 

One of the objectives of pull systems is to give the customer what they want, when they want it.  Clearly, just achieving this objective on some consistent basis will bring stability to your process or system. That’s one reason that implementing pull systems can be an early focus of a lean office and service implementation. What are some other causes of instability?

Let’s examine what happens when you have a poorly defined existing process. In this instance, your staff members are left on their own to figure out how best to perform a particular process.  Let’s further assume that the details for performing this process are kept within each person (often referred to as “tribal knowledge”, and are not adequately shared with others in the organization.  Can you see how this could cause instability, since the outputs can greatly vary based on who performs the process?  The fix, again, is fairly simple: you need to define a specific process for all employees to understand and follow.  Mapping the entire process can provide much needed definition.  This leads us to our next lean step, “Standardize”.


When implementing lean in office and services, you’ll often find that you already have some stability within your processes, and standardizing will then become your starting point. When we standardize, we develop practices consistently followed by all people who perform the process and/or the activities linked to the process.

Why do you care how I do it, as long as I get it done? It matters. In most cases, there is some semblance of stability that can be further improved by standardizing.  One primary focus of standardizing is to streamline or simplify work. Let’s say that you have a process that takes 15 minutes, and by standardizing it, you’re able to lessen its duration to 10, or even 5 minutes. Less variability will creep into the process strictly due to the shorter duration, and your employees are more likely to adhere to the process if they know that it represents the best known simplest way possible at the time it was developed.

One primary focus of standardizing is to streamline or simplify work. Let’s say that you have a process that takes 15 minutes, and by standardizing it, you’re able to lessen its duration to 10, or even 5 minutesAnother purpose of standardizing is to make it easier to identify nonstandard conditions.  These are conditions that must be addressed to return the process to acceptable levels of performance.  Nonstandard conditions will not be recognizable if there are no standards to compare them to.  For example, if everyone performs a particular activity in widely varying ways, what kinds of conclusions can you draw about efficiency and the impact on the customer process?  By standardizing, you can make the answers to these basic questions readily apparent, and that leads us to our next step.

Make Visible

Our key objective with this step is to have the workplace “speak” to us. Visual communication is the most effective and efficient method of communication.  Lean enterprises always look to improve visibility throughout their operations.  Some people refer to this as “transparency.”  In the beginning, organizations will make performance more visible.  This is a good first step.  However, much more can be accomplished, but only once your processes and activities have been standardized.

A visual workplace is one that is easier to manage over time.  With work instructions and prioritization rules posted visibly, less time will be needed to direct the most basic activities.  With techniques that make performance more visible, less time will be needed to identify problems and issues with performance.  a visual workplace makes it easier to drive continuous improvement, the real objective of lean, and the next step.

Improve (Continuously)

When you begin your lean implementation, you’ll find no shortage of opportunities to improve. You’ll engage your people to improve performance. You may choose to begin with changes on a smaller scale, within existing departments or functions. You’ll achieve local improvements first, which will lay a foundation for broader changes to be made in the future.  Alternately, you might choose to start off with the redesign of entire value streams.  In other words, you’ll choose an approach that works for your situation.

Regardless of the approach, there will be a high level of improvement activity for some time, perhaps two to three years.  But how will you sustain continuous improvement?  How will continuous improvement become part of your organization’s culture? 

The visual management techniques to be implemented will greatly help in this regard.  But you need more: you need effective leaders who provide a learning environment where it’s safe for experimentation.  And you need personnel development practices to sustain the system even in the event of a change in leadership.

Few organizations sufficiently invest in the development of their people.  There are companies that have successfully applied lean for many years, five or even 10 years, but still “lost their way”.  Often this is attributed to the failure to continually develop leaders who deeply understand lean, who can sustain and even improve the system, and who can teach it to others.  Only in this way can the culture of continuous improvement be sustained.  As common sense as lean is, it is still not common practice. 

While the common-sense nature of lean concepts will resonate with most people, the successful application of lean requires fundamental behavioral change in many people.  People are creatures of habit and have difficulty changing.  But you can create new habits, given sufficient time and support.

- Adapted with permission from the 2012 Shingo Research Award winner Lean Office and Service Simplified: The Definitive How-to Guide by Drew Locher.

What To Do Next:

Experience a realistic simulation that demonstrates how lean tools solve the problems you face now in office and service processes. Learn more about the workshop Practicing Lean Fundamentals in an Office EnvironmentHere is what you need to know »

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