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Embrace the Future: A Heartfelt Look at Lean Office Success

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Embrace the Future: A Heartfelt Look at Lean Office Success

Applying lean principles to an office environment can have significant benefits in improving process work flow, as a case study of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by the Lean Enterprise Institute shows.

The principles were applied at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) near Boston, which has 30 members of staff and is responsible for flight safety in Massachusetts – a highly regulated sector which requires large amounts of paperwork and approvals.

However, after using value stream mapping, the FSDO was able to reduce the time it needed to process a number of certification documents by 51 percent.

“The value stream maps really were a key to helping the team members look together at the whole process to see where they wanted to focus attention,” Cher Nicholas, the FAA Quality Assurance Staff consultant who conducted the lean training, explained.

Previously, the office stored its essential information in two binders within its library, which meant documents were not always updated in both folders, causing time delays, and new correspondence was not even kept in the same area.

Now, the FSDO uses a single, easily labelled color coordinated binder system, which is much easier to use and is checked annually to remove any old and redundant documents. 

Keeping The Value Stream Flowing

In a manufacturing environment, the assembly line keeps the work-in-process moving at a pre-determined pace. People must handle the work as it comes to them, or the line stops. But the office environment is different. There’s no visible production line, and that fosters sloppy work habits.

At this bureau, receiving, processing, storing, distributing, and tracking the information that comprise each person’s job is a formidable challenge. Unfortunately, most knowledge workers are undisciplined in executing these tasks. They feebly push papers from one side of the desk to the other. They shuffle piles. They read emails, mark them as unread, and take no action. They start working on one thing, lose focus, and move onto something else, resulting in piles of half-completed tasks. The value stream stops flowing. As a result, deadlines slipped and coworkers waited idly for information. Muda flooded the system.

So we refocused people’s efforts on keeping the value stream moving. Staff learned to deal with the work that entered their systems — an email, a phone call, a memo, a project, — by taking one of four courses of action: doing it, delegating it, designating time to address it, or dumping it. These are the “4Ds.” When workers rigorously applied the 4Ds, nothing returned to the inbox; value always moved forward.

The staff’s new work habits led to a 40% reduction in the amount of time spent working on backlog (which is a form of excess inventory in a lean system), and a 25% reduction in time spent processing emails.

Smoothing The Flow

As in any modern organization, no one at this bureau works independently. Meetings abound, multi-tasking is rampant, and frequent interruptions make it difficult for anyone to focus on their high value activities. As a result of these interruptions, value didn’t flow smoothly: people forgot critical tasks and commitments, and generally felt overwhelmed and out of control. Imagine a worker on an assembly line being pulled away from his station every 11 minutes to join a meeting or answer a question: workers would feel stressed, the line would grind to a halt, and the defect rate would skyrocket.

We countered these problems by implementing individual work habits that smoothed the flow of the value stream. Staff cut down needless interruptions (i.e., interruptions about non-urgent issues) with “meeting corridors” — times that each employee was available for meetings or conversation. They scheduled and blocked out their own value work so that they could focus on those tasks. They established sustainable “service level agreements” for email responses, rather than supporting the expectation of instant response. And they cut down on the amount of multi-tasking in favor of “single tasking,” creating the understanding that doing one task at a time is actually a faster and more efficient way of doing one’s job.

These changes resulted in a 35% reduction of time lost to interruptions, and a 35% decrease in overtime — indicating that people were getting more done in less time.

It’s Not Just About The Handoffs

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.

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% slide 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 can be identified in the office area.

Skills unused

TIM WOODS is our colleague who hinders from being efficient.

In summary, in order to see the waste in these processes, we must map them. We must understand the relationship between steps in a process, and we must learn to see the waste in these processes. After we identify the waste and what needs to be worked on, then we can apply traditional lean tools such as continuous flow, pull systems, layout changes, 5S principles, visual controls, and error proofing.

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