Lean Helps Improve Work Flow in the Office

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Lean Helps Improve Work Flow in the Office

Most lean office initiatives are concerned exclusively with making value stream maps and creating a more efficient business process. But that’s only part of the solution to reducing Muda. No matter how lean the system, if the people who work within it are inefficient, you’ll still have waste. It’s like a relay race: you can make the baton handoffs clean, fast, and efficient, but if the runners are slow, they’re going to lose. That’s where lean work habits come into play. These habits ensure that people are running fast – that when they’re reconciling the budget or planning a conference or creating a marketing plan for a new product, they’re working as efficiently as possible.

Lean can eliminate this paperwork backlog

Frustrated office employee

Journalist Charles Fishman points out that a typical Toyota assembly line in the United States makes thousands of operational changes in the course of a single year. He comments, “that number is not just large, it’s arresting, it’s mind-boggling. How much have you changed your work routine in the past decade?”

Remember, lean is not just about the system. It’s about the people. And isn’t it time that you addressed how they — and you — work?

Relentlessly eradicating waste is one of the paradigms of LEAN. Although this is well known, many improvement initiatives in the office area result in better equipment, more and better data bases and sometimes also in more people. The improvement will take place on the processes that already work (well). That means you are working on a 10% slice of the whole cake. There you will never get a breakthrough in efficiency what you were looking for all the time.

Instead of dealing with the 10%, focus your improvements on the other slice of the cake. This slice is really big. It’s 90% of what you are doing and unfortunately it is waste! We all know endless meetings with too many people, unclear instructions (operating procedures), mismatching interfaces between departments, fire-fighting actions and so on. As well as in production environment, the 8 Wastes, commonly described by the acronym TIMWOODS, can be identified in the office area.


Filing/saving documents that will never be used again, updating customer records in different systems


Unneeded files, extra supplies, unnecessary copies, excessive unread emails, etc.


Selecting additional keystrokes and fields to retrieve previous information, searching for misplaced files

Waiting – delays in getting feedback/approvals/decisions from peers or top management


Producing reports before they are needed, performing more analysis than required


Multiple approval signatures, entering data in multiple systems and or “stand alone” spreadsheets for reporting purposes


Incorrect/missing information on a form, handling a report several times

Skills underutilization:

Assigning an employee to two jobs due to understaffing, not cross training employees

TIM WOODS is our colleague who hinders us from being efficient.

Below are three examples of processes to which we can apply lean office principles and examples of waste we might find:

  1. Order Processing- errors in data entry, lack of standard work, imbalance of work between associates, customers waiting
  2. Engineering Change Orders – long lead times regardless of type of change, delays due to multiple approvers, unnecessary approvers, inefficient approval process, wasted time in meetings, engineering resources doing work that could be done by others to speed up process, etc.
  3. Purchasing Requisition and Ordering Process – inappropriate approval processes, errors in paperwork/data entry, large expediting costs.

Applying lean principles to an office environment can have significant benefits in improving work flow processes. In this competitive environment you can ill afford to continue doing things the way you have always done them. Now is the time to remove waste from your office and support processes to meet the economic challenge of doing more with less.

Our Lean Office Simulation Workshop is one of the tools we use to introduce companies to the Lean office concept. Over three rounds of simulation, your staff will be presented with the challenge of improving the quotation process of a fictional company to handle the changing demands of a modern business. During each round, you will be empowered to implement Lean Office principles and alter your methods of handling quotations. You will experience how quickly a cellular layout and Pull System can impact your company, making your processes infinitely more efficient.

Improvements made in the simulation are representative of changes that can be made to any office procedure. Dramatic results are measured and discussed after each round. Contact us today to learn more about the simulation.

Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates, Inc., a process improvement consultancy. He helps managers unlock the full promise, speed, and energy of their processes. Carter’s certifications include, Lean Sensei, ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an experienced facilitator, coach, and author of the book “Process Improvement for Administrative Departments, The Key to Achieving Internal Customer Satisfaction.” His company helps executives optimize their business processes to minimize their costs, accelerate their cycle time while simultaneously enabling them to do more with less. He can be reached at wcarter@quantumassocinc.com.

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