Stories From The Lean Office

In recent columns, I have discussed how lean techniques are applicable in office environments. Many companies, recognizing the potential for streamlining office processes using lean techniques, are making this an ever-increasing priority.

In recent columns, I have discussed how lean techniques are applicable in office environments. Many companies, recognizing the potential for streamlining office processes using lean techniques, are making this an ever-increasing priority.

Most companies begin the process of streamlining office functions by taking a close look at what is really being done and how much of it is adding value. Value stream mapping is an appropriate tool for identifying waste and, as such, many companies start by mapping their current processes. One company’s value stream map indicated that out of a total leadtime of 14 weeks, only 1 week was spent doing true value-added work. This custom fabricator found that a large part of the non-value added time was identified as “waiting for approval”. Approvals were built into many stages of the order fulfillment process but were assigned to management staff who were often unavailable. The company changed its approval policy to put more responsibility in the hands of those who actually do the work. This action alone led to a 2-week reduction in leadtime.

In reviewing its order entry process, another company found that a significant amount of time was used for order acknowledgment. Whenever an order was entered, an acknowledgment was automatically printed and then manually sorted and mailed to each customer. The first question to be asked was: “Who really wants these acknowledgments?” It turned out that surprisingly few customers wanted an acknowledgment, and those who did said an e-mail response would suffice. This company changed its order processing system to code any customer seeking an acknowledgment, then automatically acknowledge these customers via e-mail at the conclusion of the order-entry process. The main benefit was freeing up an overworked office staff to allow them to spend more time on value-adding activities.

Another company found employees were wasting time searching for hard copy files. Often, one customer service representative was working with a file and another would not be able to find it. With half a dozen customer service representatives, there was a great deal of frustration because simple questions would require a call back to the customer. The obvious answer to this dilemma was to have all employees maintain electronic records on the system, thus doing away with hard copies. Unfortunately, much information was only available on hard copies, and the cost of converting these files to an electronic format was not justifiable. As a short-term move, the company implemented a “do not take” rule to the files. Tables were set up at the file cabinets where files were to be reviewed and copied if necessary. This stop-gap measure reduces search time to the absolute minimum, while the long-term plan of more electronic file sharing is being developed.

One company experienced a problem that is common to many manufacturers: uncertainty about when to print out a “future” order. We know that future orders should be entered into the order processing system, as this provides visibility of what is coming and the opportunity to order any long leadtime materials. However, printing a future order and sending it into the factory can cause problems. For example, if anything related to the future order is changed, then the printed copy must be tracked down and modified or replaced. This is effort that would not be necessary if the order had not been printed.

This company experienced another problem by printing orders too soon: Future orders were being combined with current orders to save setup times. The efficiency gained by combining setups was offset by the need to keep expensive, excess inventory on hand for many months. As a remedy to both of these wastes, the company started printing orders 5 days before they were scheduled to run.

Another custom manufacturer discovered that much of its leadtime was attributed to delays in obtaining customer approvals during the design and prototype cycle. There was no effective means of managing the customer approval process. It seemed as if once the information was given to the customer, it was “out of sight, out of mind.” The manufacturer developed a centrally located schedule board that shows the status of every job in-house. This provided visibility for every step in the process and was credited for reducing the leadtime of the design and prototype cycle by 50 percent.

Another company found that some customers sent faxes or e-mails to the wrong departments. As a solution, the company created e-mail “aliases” such as order-department @ Communicating these aliases on outgoing correspondence helped educate customers about sending information to the appropriate area.