Lean Office

Offices are usually organised along functional or departmental lines which have little relationship to the information actually being processed or the service being delivered.  In most cases these functional structures will impede the flow of information.  They increase the number of hand-offs required in the value stream, each hand-off introducing delay into the process.  A process which could take a few minutes or hours actually takes days or even weeks.  The traditional departmental structure of the office has a number of consequences:

  • No single person has oversight over the whole of the value stream
  • Work may wait between departments
  • There is no clear priority for the work
  • Business improvement efforts will result in local optimisation which will usually impact negatively upon the value stream as a whole.

The ideal solution is to recast the organisational structure so that it is based on the "order-to-cash" information flows with a Value Stream Manager responsible for each value stream.  Few companies have the appetite for such a radical change, but there are less controversial ways to improve flow in the office.

Process mapping

The first step is to establish what your processes actually are, from getting the order to getting paid.  There will be some surprising revelations here.  Most companies have only the vaguest idea of what actually happens at an operational level.  Managers don't see the inefficient work-arounds and unnecessary hand-offs because the work has always been done like that.  If the processes didn't work, effort would have been expended to fix them: they do work, but not as well as they should.  There may also be some "zombie" processes which actually achieve nothing at all.

Reduce hand-offs

Work will often move between teams for historical reasons no longer valid when data is available to all through a computer system.  Reducing the number of hand-offs and getting more work done by each person will reduce waiting time significantly.

Cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams based on value stream involve teams of people from different departments co-located to process information in a fraction of the time it would previously have taken.  Offices which have adopted this approach report a reduction in waiting time of up to 90% and a reduction in "hands-on" processing time of up to 40%.  They have also found an improvement in the quality of work with a reduction in the number of errors made and consequent corrective work.

Standard work

Standard work is the documenting of the best way to perform an activity.  The should be as visual as possible and are more of an aide memoire than a formal operating procedure.  Without identifying the standard conditions under which work is done we cannot identify and deal with non-standard conditions such as:

  • Failure to perform an activity
  • Failure to perform an activity at the required time
  • Taking longer to perform an activity than it should take
  • Performing an activity in a way which will have a negative impact upon a downstream process

Standard work should only be defined for key processes - it is not worth trying to define standard work for everything.

Visual Management

As with lean manufacturing, visual management is an important element in the lean office.  Visual management adresses the key questions in the workplace:

  • What is the purpose or function of the area?
  • What activities are performed in the area?
  • How do people know what to do?
  • How do they know how to do it?
  • How do they know wow well they are doing?
  • What is to be done if performance expectations are not being met?

Visual management can take many forms, from static pages documenting processes to dynamic schedules on whiteboards or display screens.

... and more

There is much more to be explored in the lean office:

  • Achieving flow
  • Using pull systems
  • Controlling queues
  • Workload balancing

Typical benefits

A lean office can expect:

  • Lead time reductions of 50 - 90%
  • Process time reductions of 20 - 40%
  • Quality improvement of 25 - 75%

To start improving your office contact Sherpa Consulting now.