A couple of weeks ago, I offered five reasons for why we don’t see lean very much in the office and admin areas of most companies:

  • Waste is harder to see in an office 
  • Waste costs less in an office 
  • Office waste is hard to calculate
  • The customer (usually) doesn’t complain about the waste in the office
  • We’re not very good at talking about waste in the office 

Naturally, a reader asked me to put my money where my mouth is and suggest solutions to this problem—and given that I make a living as a consultant, I suppose that’s a fair request. Even though every situation is unique and idiosyncratic, the following countermeasures would be worthwhile in any organization:

1. Make speed and quality a goal for office functions. Calculate takt time for transactional, repetitive tasks such as entering orders, paying invoices, processing time cards, etc., and assess your performance against it. Even though office workers will claim that their work is totally variable, there’s actually a relatively predictable demand for most office and administrative services. Even seemingly random work such as incoming customer service calls can usually be broken down into discrete categories that can be addressed—for example, 25% of incoming customer calls might be related to shipping information, or questions about invoices. If meeting takt time is not an issue—for example, in closing the books at the end of the month— then measure and benchmark the time it takes to perform those tasks and challenge the team to figure out how to do them faster.

2. Start treating offices errors and mistakes as real defects. Obsess over quality. Lean thinkers are rabid about pursuing defects on the shop floor—every missed weld, every scratched paint job, every stripped screw leads to an intensive root cause analysis and a host of countermeasures. Take that same fanaticism to the errors in the office. Are orders ever misfiled? Do people ever put incorrect shipping information into a warranty claim? Do product developers every transpose style codes or prices in a product spec sheet? Do meetings ever end with ambiguity around next steps? Do you ever have people in a meeting that don’t why they’re there? Does a supplier ever have to call to follow up on an invoice? These aren't just minor mistakes or errors. They're defects, and they create wasteful rework, consume valuable time, and jeopardize your relationship with suppliers and customers. Treat them seriously.  

3. Write your own book on lean in the office. Not literally, of course. But you can actively seek out examples of other organizations that have applied lean in administrative areas. Read about how Fujitsu Services in the UK did terrific work with lean thinking in a call center (full case study here, and more digestible summary here. Check out Karyn Ross and Jeff Liker’s new book, The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, which is full of examples of firms that have used lean in their office functions to improve efficiency and customer service at the same time. Engage the larger lean community and ask for examples of how they’ve improved office work with lean. And, of course, you can start capturing and documenting the improvements you make to generate excitement for more kaizen.

4. Stand in an Ohno Circle. Taiichi Ohno was famous (or infamous, depending on how sore your feet got) for drawing a circle on the factory floor and asking employees to stand in it all day so that they could deeply observe the work being done. There’s more to see in a factory, what with all the machines and metal moving around, but you can still see quite a bit watching office staff. How often are they interrupted in the middle of their work? How long does it take to get to the common screens in the computer system? How often do they switch tasks? How much time do they spend in meetings—and what’s their role in those meetings? How many handoffs occur between departments in order to complete a single transaction? How long does the item of work—an invoice, a customer order, an engineering change order, etc.—sit in an inbox before it gets picked up? The simple exercise of focused observation will help you see the waste.

5. Ask other people do your job. Factory floor workers at Cambridge Engineering, an industrial HVAC manufacturer in St. Louis, regularly ask their colleagues to do their jobs for them for a couple of cycles. Why? For one thing, it’s difficult to see the waste in one’s own work. It’s much more apparent when you’re watching someone else fumble with a process when they don’t know the workarounds and shortcuts that you’ve internalized. Watching someone else do the job literally gives the primary worker a fresh perspective on the process. (Workers will often video the other person doing the work so that they can review it together afterwards.) It’s a bit less exciting to video someone clicking a mouse, but you can still see things with fresh eyes when you watch someone else fumble through computer screens or make a data entry error while filling out the same information on four different forms in a product development spec package.

Give these five approaches a try, and see if they don't jumpstart your lean efforts in the office.