Basic principles for lean in the office

I often get this question:' Is lean not just for manufacturing? Our environment is very different from making cars.' My answer is always that copying lean tools from Toyota in each environment will work in no environment. Lean needs to have a purpose and a goal. Once you have that you can look at the tools and fit them for your needs. As I showed in a previous blog with the 8 wastes you can easily add or change things to better fit your situation. You need to train your people in purpose, mindset and tools. 

Success stories 

There are some great success stories about lean in the office and services environment:

Basic steps

Stability first

This has to do with decreasing variability in lead time, quality of output and cycle time. Because the product is not tangible this can be a challenge. Start with decreasing variability in quality of output first. This will give you a clear sense of customer demand and of problems in the value stream. One tool in your toolbox is to start with pull and takt time like shown in the video below.

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Implement standard work

If your process has some basic stability you need to work on standards. This tends to be harder in office environments because people are used to greater degrees of freedom. They feel that it does not matter how the product is being made as long as it meets customer demand. By implementing standards you start to see what is and what is not normal. This gives your people a common language for training and improvement. This will feel for some people as a loss of freedom and independence, which is why the next two steps are very important as well.

Make work visual

This can be done with work standards, 5s, KPI and other visual tools like kannan and andon. Making work visual makes it tangible and with this the work will feel different to employees almost immediately. Being able to see and touch instead of just understanding leads to deeper understanding and feeling of responsibility. By making standards visual you can support employees in following them and in spotting potential for improvement.

Keep improving

The basic idea behind Lean is to keep improving. Work standards are not meant to lock employees in place. It is meant to empower employees to make their work better. For continuous improvement you can use kaizen, root cause analysis, 5S, going to the gemba and value stream mapping. You need people trained in not just using the tools, but also in what you as a company want to achieve. This is not a matter of explaining the purpose once, but of repetition and reinforcement. 

What to look for

There are certain types of things to look for when you want to decrease struggle for employees in an office environment:

  • Look at the information available. What information is never used? Are there batches of information? Does everyone have the information they need?
  • Look at lack in knowledge sharing. Do certain initiatives repeat themselves? Are all tasks value adding for the customer or obligatory from an oversight perspective? Is key knowledge shared across the value stream?
  • Look at the timing within a value stream. Are tasks and initiatives in synch? How much time goes towards stop and go activities (where it is either very busy or not busy at all)? And how are stop and go activities managed? Which departments have to wait for each other?


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