Lean Office


October 1, 2006
By Darren Dolcemascolo

"Lean Office" is becoming a popular concept, but what does it really mean? Some think that organizing their desks using 5S principles is the place to start; however, there is much resistance to this approach by itself and with good reason. Before applying any of the lean tools to an office environment, it is important to understand the flow of work. Just as we map the value stream and focus on shortening lead time and eliminating waste in manufacturing, we must map administrative processes to better understand them and eliminate waste. It is at that point at which we can apply the tools.

Processes like product development, order processing, planning, purchasing, and the like are full of wasteful steps that cause delays. Since one of the key principles in lean thinking is to minimize the time between the customer order and the fulfillment of that order, we must look at the entire lead time. This lead time includes many non-manufacturing processes- in fact, for the service organization it doesn’t include any manufacturing processes. In order to see the waste in these processes, we must map them. We must understand the relationship between steps in a process, and we must learn to see the waste in these processes. After we identify the waste and what needs to be worked on, then we can apply traditional lean tools such as continuous flow, pull systems, layout changes, 5S principles, visual controls, and error proofing.

Below are three examples of processes to which we can apply lean office principles and examples of waste we might find:

  • Order Processing- errors in data entry, lack of standard work, imbalance of work between associates, customers waiting
  • Engineering Change Orders – long lead times regardless of type of change, delays due to multiple approvers, unnecessary approvers, inefficient approval process, wasted time in meetings, engineering resources doing work that could be done by others to speed up process, etc.
  • Purchasing Requisition and Ordering Process – inappropriate approval processes, errors in paperwork/data entry, large expediting costs.
  • Let’s consider the service department at an auto dealership not far from where I live. About two years ago, the process by which a customer would check his/her automobile in for service was:

  • Pull vehicle in to service area and park.
  • Wait for an attendant.
  • When an attendant arrives, give your name and reason for service and go into the service “lounge.”
  • Wait (average about 20-30 minutes) for someone to call you.
  • When called, meet with a service associate to discuss the service and sign paperwork.
  • This process took on the average about 30 – 40 minutes. After receiving poor feedback from their customers, this dealership decided to apply some lean thinking.

  • The new process is as follows:

  • Pull vehicle into parking lot and give already waiting attendant your information.
  • Pull into service area and leave vehicle with keys.
  • Wait in lobby for service associate (average 1 - 4 minutes)
  • Meet with a service associate to discuss the service and sign paperwork.

  • The new process takes less than 15 minutes from start to finish. This very simple example shows that delays can be eliminated by re-balancing work, eliminating steps, re-locating people and processes, and applying other lean concepts.


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