Lean Management in the Office – Four Key Techniques

Six Sigma and lean production technologies have helped drive a productivity revolution in manufacturing enterprises. The basic analytical methodology of DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control) has proven itself remarkably versatile in its application to a wide range of engineering problems. More recently Six Sigma tools and concepts have been systematically applied to a wide variety of service and customer interface environments in the private and public sectors. There is a clear natural analogy between a factory floor and a modern call centre or a hospital – both involve stable and repetitive processes designed to deliver specified customer outcomes. Even where misapplied, for example to justify a pre-existing pet project, the rigorous nature of lean analytic approaches can hardly fail to yield some improvement.

Traditionally progress stalls the further away from manufacturing roots. In high-end creative and professional roles, processes are traditionally more bespoke and less quantifiable. How can the philosophies of lean production be applied to this kind of discontinuous, non-repetitive and sophisticated environment? In short, how can lean concepts be applied in a law firm, or in finance department, or in the creative industries? This article offers some ideas.

(1) Flow

The fundamental lean concept is one of flow – the seamless, uninterrupted progression of a product down the manufacturing line. The same concept of flow can apply to idea development, project-based work, corporate finance deals or indeed any set-up where intelligence is progressively applied to achieve an outcome. Here, even a partial adoption of lean techniques can yield substantial dividends.

You can start by process mapping your project or daily work-flow. The prime aim here is to identify delays or roadblocks that can slow your productivity. In a factory, bottlenecks or constraints are identified and then output is optimised by subordinating production up to the level of the bottleneck. This prevents wasteful stockpiling of inventory just before the constraint. Then the roadblock can be systematically elevated to raise the productive capacity of the entire system.

Think about the bottlenecks and constraints in your organisation. What dependencies exist on the critical path – securing budget approval or internal sign-off, training or skill needs, or perhaps sub-contracting work and reliance on third party input? What scope for reducing dependency exists? How can the bottlenecks be permanently elevated?

(2) Takt time

In a factory, the takt time represents the heartbeat of the process – the pace of workload. Products and materials move between workstations with a regularity determined by the customer of the process. People are often no different – adjusting their work intensity and approach depending on the timing and quality demands of the end-consumer. What should the takt time of your project or daily work-flow be? What critical-to-quality (CTQ) outcomes are demanded by your end-customers, and when? Every unit of work (paper, creative project, phone call, article) should be consciously evaluated against the “iron triangle” of cost, quality and time – perhaps with a fourth dimension, of energy.

(3) Waste

Deming pioneered a new understanding of where failure resided – even in a superficially or ultimately successful process – through his concept of the seven forms of waste. These included waiting time, processing, inventory, over-production, motion, conveyance and re-work.

Transitions – between projects, personnel and locations – is a frequent cause of waste. Those from a manufacturing background will be familiar with Shigeo Shingo’s Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED) techniques. This reduces changeover time between manufacturing products to a tightly controlled period of time. Pioneered at Toyota, this has helped reduce transition time between workstations by up to 40%. One of the most impressive demonstrations of fast changeover time through applying these techniques is a Formula One pit-stop, where tyres can be changed at lightning speeds.

(4) Workload Management

It is one of the ironies of modern life that professionals are frequently given little formal training or support in the rudiments of email management, document control and personal work-flow optimisation. Most are simply entrusted on the job to maximise their productivity and, to boot, are deprived in a typical modern office of virtually all secretarial or work-flow support. Fortunately the individual can benefit through the systematic application of lean techniques to their daily work-flow. Start by constructing a Yamazumi diagram that segments activities by colour. Red denotes a wasted or roadblock activity, yellow a necessary set-up process and green is the value-added or core activity itself. Plotting daily work-flow against time taken on the y-axis is usually a revelatory experience for managers.

In short, there is wide scope for application of lean concepts and techniques into the modern managerial workplace. Adopting the basic philosophies of flow, takt time, elimination of waster and Yamazumi charting has the potential to revolutionise daily workflow management in any office.

(c) 2011 James Rozel. All rights reserved.