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11 Principles of a Lean Office (+Video +PDF)

It is easy to get wrapped up in the small stuff and lose sight of the big picture. While this can happen on the shop floor, it is much more prevalent in office settings. For example,

  • teams may become focused on applying a Lean tool like takt time or Standard Work to an administrative process, even when the concept is not well suited to the situation.
  • teams spend their energy trying to optimize a process that should be eliminated.
  • teams try to figure out how to manage piles of work rather than avoid them.

Over the years as a Lean consultant, I have identified a handful of principles that I use to guide the teams I am coaching. Following these principles can help teams keep the big picture in mind and can create a more effective Lean Office. (“Want help? We have several new Lean Office PowerPoint Training Packages to help leaders teach many of the following tenets to their own teams.)

The Principles of a Lean Office

  1. Lean begins with a committed leadership team. Leaders provide the foundation upon which all Lean efforts are built. They create a vision and develop the strategy to achieve the company’s goals. They recognize the value of satisfied employees. And they are the ones who create an empowered frontline team. A company can have pockets of success with grassroots Lean efforts, but until leaders fully commit, Lean won’t thrive.
  2. A Lean office requires metrics and goals. Without metrics, it can be difficult to assess the impact of a change. Furthermore, when teams lack clear, measureable goals, people will often unwittingly work at odds with each other. (Want help? We offer a Metrics, Goal-Setting, and Data Collection Boot Camp to help your Lean leaders get up to speed in a hurry.?
  3. A Lean office has standardized processes that are followed by everyone. It is surprising how frequently people doing the same process follow different methods. Often, personal preference rather than objective facts drive the process. When there are no set standards, it is difficult to improve a process for the whole team. (Want help? Use our Lean training on Standardization to help teach your teams about how to create consistent processes.)
  4. A Lean office uses 5S. A disorganized office is an ineffective office. Once a standard process is established, build the office around that method. Put things where they make the most sense, and get rid of all the clutter.

Try this experiment: Download our free Interruption Log. Then pick an employee and give her a stopwatch for a day. Have her start it whenever she searches for anything, or has to get up from her desk to get something, or has to move something out of the way. After reviewing it at the end of the day, you’ll be surprised how much time is lost due to office layout problems.

  1. A Lean office has minimal WIP. A major goal of Lean is reducing or eliminating work-in-process. It speeds up lead time, reduces inconsistency in the customer experience, and eliminates a major source of waste.
  2. A Lean office strives for flow. Flow is one of those concepts that you’ll know when you see. In short, it is the art of being able to have work move start to finish by the shortest means possible, all without stopping to wait in a queue. It is difficult to achieve, but a thing of beauty when accomplished.
  3. Demand is well understood in a Lean office. One of the biggest challenges in creating a Lean office is understanding the variations in demand. On the shop floor, managing demand is less complicated. Heijunka, or load leveling, smoothes the demand a team experiences. But in the office, it is much more difficult to flatten out the workload. For example, you can’t answer the phone before it rings, and a customer won’t wait on hold for very long. Plus, because of the customized nature of office work, it is nearly impossible to hold items in inventory. You can’t have a generic loan application approved and ready to ship out to the next customer that needs money.

Another complicating factor is that not all office work is really demand. For example, answering phone calls from customers checking order status is work that has to be done, but it is waste. You’d want it to go down. True demand is something that you’d like to see rise.

Getting a handle on demand patterns, and understanding all the various tasks on office workers’ plates is essential to running a Lean office.

A PDF of this article is included in our Phase 3 Information Series.

Learn More.

  1. A Lean office uses a daily management system. This is at the heart of all successful Lean offices. Once the demand piece is figured out, your Lean office needs to manage that demand. Daily management takes the expected demand and matches that to the staffing. More importantly, it requires monitoring and a proactive response as soon as a team starts falling behind a plan. (Want help? Get a free Daily Management Worksheet to get you started, or learn about how our Daily Management Boot Camp can quickly add daily management to your operation.)
  2. A Lean office is visual. Management, teamwork, and communication are all easier when anyone can walk into a work area and immediately see what is going on. Because so much office work is contained in the form of ones and zeroes on a hard drive, it can be nearly impossible to see what is happening and if anything needs to be done. A visual office makes abnormal situations obvious. (Want help? Use our Visual Management Lean Lego Exercise to add some fun to teaching your team the power of visual controls. Plus, we have a 5S and Visual Management PowerPoint class.)
  3. A Lean office runs on communication and teamwork. Because of the fluid nature of a Lean office, people have to be both responsive and flexible when changes in demand happen.
  4. A Lean office has a continuous improvement culture. This often takes many years to develop, but in a true continuous culture everyone believes it is part of their job to reduce waste and make improvements every day.

With a few exceptions, these principles don’t require the use of specific tools. Tools, and the technology that supports them, change rapidly. Principles stick around much longer. If you stay focused on the principles and use the tools as a means to those ends, you Lean office will evolve nicely. If you get wrapped up in the tools, you’ll struggle to keep your Lean momentum.


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