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Office Process Flow and IF-THEN Statements

IF (you want Lean success in the office), THEN (follow this Lean advice)

What’s the biggest difference between how shop floor (gemba) work and office processes flow?

It’s not what you might think.

A task is a task, whether you are grinding out burrs, installing an electric motor, or entering data. Sure, the motions are different, but in truth, the mechanics are similar.

  1. Your brain decides what to do.
  2. It tells your muscles how to do it.

It doesn’t matter if your brain tells your finger muscles which keys to press on your keyboard, or your back muscles where to swing a pick-axe. You go through those two steps. (Let’s leave creative processes, like generating ideas, out of this discussion—those are a little different.)

The biggest difference is in how you decide what task to do next. On the shop floor, most processes are linear. Step A, then B, then C. On occasion, there might be some product options, though, like the various bells and whistles that customers can order. After step C, you might have to decide if you need to do step D (install option) or step E (don’t install option).

In office process flow, most of a job follows the ‘options’ part of the shop floor process. Office process flow is seldom linear. The decision points in this non-linear process flow works much the same way that a computer does.

Office processes are full of IF-THEN-ELSE routines, possibly with a bunch of OR’s and AND’s thrown in for good measure. Many office workers don’t even realize they do this. For example, they intuitively follow this process:

IF the customer order says Option 1, THEN do step E, ELSE do step F.

If you watch an office process flow from start to finish, you’ll see many, many, many of these decision points. Let’s consider how this works when an order arrives in the fax machine.

IF Sally hears the machine,

THEN she tells Betty,

ELSE the order sits in the fax machine.

The process often continues.

IF the fax is for Betty,

THEN she works on it,

ELSE she delivers the fax to the right person.

Ahh, if you are astute, you’ll ask, what happens IF Betty is not at work? Well, THEN Sally delivers the order.

When people say “It depends” while discussing how an office process flows, they are really saying that they use an IF-THEN process.

Suppose a customer in your lobby asks for a drink. What do you do? “It depends.” IF the customer is a ‘Gold Card’ member, THEN we get them coffee, ELSE we show them where the water fountain is.

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By the way, if you don’t think this ‘IF-THEN’ system really works to document an office process’s flow, ask yourself this question:

What got you to the point of reading this article?

The software that displays this text up on your screen is the result of people and computers interacting with IF-THEN processes thousands of times. Of course, you probably don’t need that many decision points to meet your customers’ needs with your office process flow, but don’t believe for a minute that office processes can’t be documented. If software developers can document how to get the idea from my keyboard to your screen, you can figure out how to document Mr. Jones shipment preferences.

When we choose not to document our office process flow, it isn’t because we can’t. It is because we want the flexibility to do things however we want to, whenever we want. In truth, though, that just slows down continuous improvement efforts.

Once you have the IF-THEN-ELSE figured out, you can make your office process flow better.


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