How to Overcome the Biggest Barriers to a Lean Office

lean office

Lean methodology is a common sense approach to increasing customer satisfaction, decreasing costs and improving the quality of products and services, concurrently. In order to accomplish this, organizations must create full transparency and be clear about what metrics matter to their overall performance. This sounds so easy and straightforward, so why aren’t we all doing it?

There are several barriers that can keep an organization from adopting Lean. This article will cover 2 of them: Lean history and corporate biases. I will also show how to make an office environment Lean.

Lean History

Your ability to optimize something depends largely on what your history has been.

For example, the United States has been awash with cheap gasoline for most of the past century. Europe, however, has always had higher taxes on fuel since WW2 to fund war reparations and major infrastructure repairs. Fuel prices in Europe today range from 2-5x the price for US petrol. With that in mind, how do the US and Europe generally monitor vehicle fuel consumption?

In the US, we track miles per gallon. At one point, I’m sure 10 mpg might have been a good measure. Today, extremely efficient vehicles are 42 mpg or more. But I ask you, what is the ideal? The mpg metric is not transparent and therefore, not in line with Lean thinking. In Europe, by contrast, mpg is not used at all. They track “liters consumed per 100 kilometers”. 10 years ago, vehicles requiring 15 Liters per 100 km were commonplace. Today, very efficient vehicles consume 5 Liters per 100 kilometers, showing that fuel efficiency has tripled within 1 decade! This L/100km equation shows optimization potential in a way that mpg cannot.

It all comes down to perspective and transparency to see where waste exists.

Corporate Biases

Another big reason a lean initiative won’t get off the ground is because of a general corporate bias against Lean thinking.

Let’s face it—Lean was developed in production environments and nowadays fewer of us work in factories than ever before. “We’re different here!” some would say. So if it wasn’t developed or piloted in your own area, it’s easy to write it off as part of the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome.

Corporations and cultures can become like animals, taking on a life of their own with groupthink prevailing. Again, history plays a role here. For example, if a manager has progressed through his or her career by working a series of difficult jobs in order to be promoted, they feel the next generation must be willing to sacrifice the same or more to get ahead.

With most organizations being hierarchical, having pyramid shaped corporate ladders, it’s easy for workers to see the “up or out” principle is alive and well. Therefore, organizations can become ingrained in their thinking, waiting for leadership to address problems even though the workers who face the problems daily may be best equipped to mitigate them.

But, rocking the boat and empowering people to do their jobs better isn’t always a senior manager’s top priority. This is not to downplay the typical manager out there who certainly has to work hard to stay relevant within the organization; it’s just easier to dictate what needs to be done than listen to suggestions from the shop floor because workers lack the top-level view.

In the end, corporate biases like these can create a lot of wasted resources. There’s a difference between being BUSY and being PRODUCTIVE. It’s about time companies start to appreciate that.

Lean Office: The Final Frontier!

Office spaces are the final frontier of lean. Lean within factories has started to mature and the concepts are relatively easy to grasp. If you can make an office think Lean, then you can replicate Lean anywhere.

With this in mind, the necessary steps to create a Lean office are the same to create a Lean factory, although the wastes you find look very different:

  • Specify Value

Know who your customer is and what they consider value-adding.

  • Map the Value Stream

Start with the first touch point, and work all the way to the final customer. How long does it take to add value? Identify everything else as waste.

  • Establish Flow

Remove wastes and harmonize the time to produce through workload leveling and standard work. Eliminate bottlenecks as they appear and shift.

  • Implement Pull

Once a flow has been created, start to produce only what is needed to the customer’s tact. Do not do extra. Build quality in and eliminate rework.

  • Work to Perfection.

A lean journey is never complete. Reexamine, refine, re-implement.

It’s important that companies today seize the initiative to make office environments lean, as the transformation to more remote work environments will prove to be disastrous otherwise. Offices are flooded in waste, even more so than factories! The heart of Lean methodology is to decrease waste, so we must have the proper metrics in place to measure the effectiveness.

Take stock of the wasted resources in your office. How do you specify the value of an email exchange? Or on a company meeting? If your company sets low expense approval levels for managers (say $500), for example, yet you regularly host corporate meetings with 20 people for 1 hour, is this the most efficient use of resources? Instead of chasing costs, I propose that Return on Invested Capital is the single best top-level metric available today.

If the goal is a relentless pursuit of perfection, then a lean journey is never truly complete. My advice is to stop looking for silver bullets! Look for what is proven and works—discipline. Start measuring what is valued by your customers if you’re not already doing it. Remember Deming’s words, “If it can be measured, it can be improved.”