Finding Waste Reduction Opportunities In The Office

In many organizations, there is a greater opportunity for improving overall customer satisfaction in office processes than in manufacturing processes.

Columns From: 2/17/2009 Modern Machine Shop,

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Wayne Chaneski

Wayne Chaneski

I am often surprised by the opportunities to reduce waste in the typical office environment. However, because most companies focus their productivity improvement efforts in manufacturing areas, office areas get overlooked. However, in many organizations, there is a greater opportunity for improving overall customer satisfaction in office processes than in manufacturing processes. In fact, for many custom manufacturers, an order spends more time in the office than it does on the shop floor. So if there is opportunity to reduce waste in office processes, why don’t companies focus more effort on this side of the business?

• Reason 1—Office personnel are busy doing many different things, so they never really give thought to the time it takes to move and process information for a specific job. Consider the following: A manufacturing employee can generally tell you how long a task takes to complete. On the other hand, when you ask office employees how long it takes to complete a process, you generally get an “it depends” response. They will probably be able to tell you how many different things they did during the day but not necessarily how long any one thing took. Office employees are not used to thinking in those terms—they are used to thinking about the “bigger picture.”
 
• Reason 2—In most cases, office processing time is not measured. Office employees may not even know the expected process time or target-completion dates for individual processes. In fact, when an order is received with a due date, there typically is no breakdown for both the office and manufacturing process times within that due date. Instead, everyone works to the one date, which can seem distant in some cases. This can instill an “I’ve got time yet” way of thinking.

• Reason 3—Office employees have always been grouped together in accounting systems as overhead, and manufacturing employees traditionally have been represented as direct labor. There has always been a greater focus on manufacturing employees as a direct link to product cost, while office employees have not been seen in the same light. Over the years, there have been attempts to modify cost accounting practices to more effectively allocate product  costs to different areas of the business. Unfortunately, the time associated with capturing all the required information to make these new accounting practices work has caused many companies to abandon the effort. Many organizations think that overhead is fixed, and little can be done to reduce it.

Now, there are exceptions to these three reasons. For example, call centers and customer service organizations in larger companies have very specific productivity measures in place. The sizes of these operations and their call volumes dictate a closely managed process. Yet, this is the exception in the typical manufacturing company, which functions very differently. Usually, the focus is on making parts for customers rather than the average answer speed for an incoming phone call.

So, what can you do to reduce waste in the office? Well, for one, you need to think differently about your office processes and view them as a potential area for improved customer service. Start by focusing on the office processes themselves (as opposed to the people doing the work), and look for any type of waste that exists. Printing out production orders too soon can be viewed as a waste of overproduction. Filled in-boxes can be viewed as a waste of excess inventory. Redundant approvals can be viewed as a waste of over processing. Extensive movement of paperwork through the organization can be viewed as a waste of transportation.

Once you identify wastes such as these, look for the most obvious solutions. For example, printing production orders a day before they are worked on eliminates overproduction waste as well as the problem of lost orders. Not allowing in-boxes to exceed a certain level by redirecting resources eliminates the waste of excess inventory. Delegating approval authority to experienced, capable employees eliminates the waste of over processing. Finally, moving office personnel closer together or sending more information via the computer eliminates the waste of excessive paperwork transportation. Finding and reducing these types of waste streamlines office processes, allowing orders to move faster without anyone working harder.

The opportunity for improving customer service by reducing office waste is there. We just have to be willing to look into that end of the business.
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