In last month's column, I described some of the wastes inherent in the office environment. It is quite common to witness overproduction of orders that will not be produced in the immediate future; waiting for approvals or information from any number of sources; moving around the office looking for everything from work orders to copy paper; paperwork traveling a great distance; and people not being employed to their fullest capabilities. This month, I will discuss how to apply many of the lean tools used in the factory to the office in an effort to streamline these important processes.
Before applying lean techniques to the office, consider what the customer really wants. This question should be at the heart of any "office lean" effort. Who wants the information (in effect, the office's "product"); how often is it needed; and in what format is it desired? Understanding the customer's desired service level can help us target the appropriate areas because it won't do us any good to streamline a process that we should not be doing.
Standardized work—Standardized work means doing a job the best way, every time. Let's begin by asking whether everyone does a particular job the same way. Surprisingly, the answer is often no. Working with those carrying out the job, we must identify the best way and train everyone to ensure this method becomes the norm. A standard office process leads to minimal variation of outcomes and ultimately greater accuracy and timeliness.
Quality at the source—As is the case in all manufacturing processes, office personnel need to be capable of checking their own work to assure accuracy. Some type of system prompt, or listing of required information, is one way to help assure that information is processed completely. Anyone who has ordered anything on the Internet knows the precautions Web sites take to be sure every piece of information is entered before proceeding to the next screen (ah, those asterisked fields). Samples of complete and accurate information can also provide a visual indication of acceptable quality.
Workplace organization—The 5S system of Sort, Set-in-Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain is an effective means of organizing any office area. Using the system as a guideline, offices need to dispose of unneeded objects. Organize the remaining items in a way that anyone can find anything, and keep work areas clean. These first three S's alone are a start, but the fourth S (Standardize) is necessary to assure that rules are established to maintain workplace organization efforts. Finally, the fifth S (Sustain) is vital, as we need to audit workplace organization progress to ensure that everyone is following the predetermined standards. Visual controls, such as centrally located schedule boards, color-coded files and clear signs/labels, serve a useful purpose while aiding in processing information quickly. Point-of-use storage of a small quantity of items that can be replenished as consumed will eliminate much time spent going somewhere to get something.
Batch reduction—Reducing batch sizes or batch frequency can have a noticeable impact as to how information flows in a company. Ideally, any piece of information should be addressed once and not put aside until it is completely processed. The concept of continuous flow—make-one-move-one—can be applied in the office, but everyone must understand the need to finish what is started so the output can be moved along sooner. Many offices batch or wait until there is a certain volume of work to complete before starting a process. Examples include delivering or picking up orders from the factory at preset times instead of when they are ready and printing purchase orders and invoices once a day. These practices need to be continually challenged to determine if the need is real or imagined. Interruptions, such as phone calls, or missing information can inhibit a continuous flow process. Sometimes this is unavoidable, yet solutions may exist. For example, assigning certain people to operate the phones for fixed time periods can free others up to complete their work without interruption.
When truly unavoidable, a pull system can limit the amount of information that will sit idle. In such a system when work volume reaches a certain level at a particular process, other employees move to that process to "pitch in" and reduce the backlog, rather than continue to send work that will just pile up. Whether you employ a continuous flow or pull process, the goal should be smaller batches and faster throughput.
Cellular or team concept—Moving employees closer together facilitates better workflow and improved communication in the office. Linking traditionally separate spheres, such as order entry, scheduling and invoicing, can lead to a streamlined process that provides better customer service.