Enjoy our first guest post about lean techniques in the office…
Right now untold millions are being spent by CERN at the Large Hadron Collider searching for a new particle called the Higgs Boson or the God particle. Finding this particle, I am told, could help scientist one day develop the much sought after theory of everything. I find it interesting that theoretical physicists never stop searching for unification; always striving for one theory that will describe all the laws of the universe. This makes me think about implementing Lean in the office.
I recently attended a user group held at Steelcase University on Office Lean. Our goal for the two-day event was to share best practices and build knowledge around how Lean techniques can be used in the office.
While much has been written about Office Lean, (a Google search on the exact phrase “Office Lean” provides you with 39,200 results) there still seems to be a feeling, at least among our group at Steelcase, that we are feeling our way through the dark with a flashlight.
So let’s take a moment to look at the seven basic principles of Lean through the eyes of an Office Lean implementer:
1. Empowering People: This one seems simple enough on the surface, if you work in the process; you have the power to fix it. But if we dig a bit deeper, we find the real problem is not empowerment, but ownership. The typical office process is a sneaky, invisible process, with an amazing ability to morph on a day-to-day basis depending on the mood of the person and an infinite set of variables. Who would want to step up and own such a process? Not me!
2. Eliminating Waste: Ah the Lean mantra, if there is one principle us Lean Practitioners hold sacred, it is the intense hatred of Muda, Mura, and Muri. In the manufacturing world we “walk the process” looking for waste. It’s usually not hard to see, too much movement over here, a pallet that waits on the dock over there, and my favorite, the worker who spends 20 minutes hunting down the right tools. But when we look for waste in our office, we quickly realize that “walking the process” means getting inside a users mind, and suddenly, we have a very different animal. The question becomes, how do you eliminate something you can’t see, smell, touch, taste or hear? How do we make the office process visible and expose the waste?
3. Making Everything As Simple As Possible: This one cuts right to the heart of most organizations. On one side, is the Lean Practitioner, No. 2 pencil and clip board in hand. Armed with a deep-seated hatred of waste and an empowering speech, we set off believing that common sense will prevail. On the other side, is the corporate structure of silos, sacred cows and “untouchable” processes. I liken this corporate culture to a fungus that can only survive on the host of a living organism. These processes suck the life blood out of your Lean efforts and leave you feeling weak and anemic. How is your corporate culture, is it one that promotes simplicity or chaos?
4. Doing One Thing At A Time: I once heard a story of a Toyota manager who asked his manufacturing workers to refuse defects from the previous step in the process. Instead of acting heroically and fixing the defect, they were instructed to simply set the offending part aside, and stand idle with their hands in the air. I am not sure if this is a true story or just a “Lean Parable” design to make us think. However, I can’t help but think what effect it might have if our office staff stood idle at their cube each time they had to investigate or re-work a piece of incorrect information. I am confident we could eliminate chairs in the department where I work! So, is it practical for the office worker to achieve this Lean principle in a world designed for multitasking? Does this principle even apply to the Lean Office?
5. Keep Everything Flowing: Flow; aside from eliminating waste, this might be our most sacred principle. Us Lean thinkers have taken the concept of flow to almost religious heights. At Kaizen events all around the globe you can hear the chant “don’t go, until you flow.” I see hope for office flow. Too often we tend to batch in the office; I tend to process all my invoices on Friday for example. However, I think this mind-set is slowly changing in the office work force. Do you see flow in your office, or is it just multitasking in a clever disguise?
6. Making Everything Visual: This is the Lean principle that gives me heartburn in the office. I have spent countless hours’ process mapping the office process. I have process maps printed on giant plotter paper. I have metrics to ensure the process has the desired outcome. I have Standard Operating Procedures to guide and train. But, I still don’t have visibility. Are your office processes visible? Can you take a Gemba walk and see the waste? Are more/better metrics the key, or do we run the risk of measuring everything, and improving nothing?
7. Building In Quality: Quality, they say, can’t be inspected into the process. So then, quality must be built into the process. Poka Yoke it and ensure that a mistake can’t be made. This concept works well with a limited set of variables. The three-pronged outlet plug has only three uniquely shaped prongs. Design an outlet to match the shape of the prongs and even a toddler can plug the TV in correctly. No training manual necessary. What then happens when your list of variables grow from three to thirty-three? Designing a mistake proof office process is a lifetime achievement award at most companies.
To me, something seems to be missing when we move Lean into the office. I am proposing an all out search to find a principle that holds our traditional Lean principles together in an office setting. We need something that transcends both the manufacturing floor and the office. We need something that allows our seven principles to work equally well in either environment. We need to find the God principle.