Boss's office should be an example of leanness
January 12, 2013 | 9:00 am CST
I am deviating a little bit from the direction this series was taking in order to address a pressing issue that seems to be systemic among managers and leaders across all industries. The consensus seems to be that, “The tools and techniques of lean are appropriate for everyone else, but they don’t apply to me.”
In the 20-plus years that I have been facilitating the lean transformation process, I have yet to encounter a plant, department, or organizational role that is exempt from, or immune to, the benefits of any and all of the lean tools and techniques. Unfortunately, there are those who can see a need for improvement in other areas while they are blind to opportunities around themselves.


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Sorting your office 

Whenever a company executive offers a semi-permanent location for me to work from at his or her site, I immediately determine how to lay out the area for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. If there is clutter in the office that isn’t going to support my purpose for being there, I ask for assistance in sorting through it and making disposition so the necessary stuff finds an appropriate home and the unnecessary is discarded.
In case you haven’t identified that step, it’s called Sorting, the first of the 5S steps in the foundation-laying lean tool of workplace organization. Yes, lean begins with me. I can’t expect others to follow me if I can’t demonstrate some benefits of the journey in my own area of control, and, as a manager or leader, you shouldn’t either.

Lean labeling

Next I determine what resources I will be using and where they should be placed so I can access them easily. Labeling is a big thing with me because many of my resources, especially reference materials, become community property over time and people need to know where they are and where they should be returned.
I label the location and the item so others know what it is and who it belongs to. Labeling is important because items need to be able to be located quickly and put away properly so waste is avoided in unnecessary searches.

The boss’s office 

I recently visited a custom shop where I observed this kind of waste first hand. The boss of the shop was away during my visit, so the plant manager provided a desk for me in the boss’s office for the few days I was there conducting a lean assessment. I don’t have any pictures to share, so you can’t appreciate how disorganized the boss’s office was by reading a few descriptive words, but suffice to say I have encountered few offices in a greater state of disarray.
The office was about 400 square feet and almost every cubic foot of space was occupied by something. On three occasions people came into the office to try to find something in the boss’s desk, only to leave empty handed and frustrated after exhaustive searches. Not only was the person conducting the search frustrated with the outcome, the customer who was calling for information was frustrated as well not being able to get an answer to their inquiry.
I talked to the plant manager about my observation and he shared that it was embarrassing and frustrating for him also. He said there had been many conversations with the boss about better organizing his work space, but the boss couldn’t see the benefit. After all, he knew where everything was, so what’s the big deal?

What’s the big deal? 

Is that how you see your office or work area? Since it’s your space – what’s the big deal if it’s organized or not? The real work doesn’t happen in your office anyway, it happens on the shop floor – right? Isn’t that where attention should be paid to being organized and eliminating waste and unnecessary process steps?
The answer is that improvements through workplace organization are available everywhere people interact with things. Change has to be managed in a way that includes everyone. Change has to begin with you. If it isn’t important to you, it won’t be important to anyone else.

5S and one cubicle 

In contrast to the situation above, I have another story that demonstrates one of the benefits of 5S and a few pictures as well. I insist on having an onsite contact person on all projects to assist in navigating through the administrative and political maze so I can create the most value for the customer in my available time.
On this particular project my contact was the Engineering Manager. My temporary location was an open cubicle in the engineering office, which I immediately set about to organize as I described above. Shortly after beginning the project the manager came to meet with me in my office and was immediately awed by how organized and efficiently I was able to operate in virtually the same space that he struggled with each day.
He told me that he had been trying to get a bigger office to accommodate all of his stuff, but one hadn’t become available so he had to contend with the chaos and confusion that you can clearly see in the before picture. He didn’t appreciate just how unorganized and unproductive he was until he saw my office and realized that he didn’t have to remain stuck in that unproductive rut. After all, he was responsible for the real estate he occupied so there was no reason he shouldn’t feel authorized to change it.

Setting an example 

We spent some time talking about Lean, especially the benefits of workplace organization, and how he should be taking the lead and setting the example for everyone else in the organization. Immediately after leaving my office he started the task of Sorting all of his stuff, Setting it in Order, Shining his workspace, Standardizing how his work processes should be performed to maximize his time, and setting goals and objectives for himself to Sustain the process.
The results of his efforts are shown in the after pictures. Note the inventory list on the overhead cabinets that clearly identify the contents that are behind the solid doors. Anyone looking for resource material simply has to check the list rather than rummage through a bunch of books. All of the books were arranged behind the door in the same order they appeared on the lists.

Putting it to the test 

The new workplace organization was put to the test when I was supposed to meet with him in his office to obtain some much needed material for a management presentation. When I arrived, I discovered he had been called away and wouldn’t return before the meeting. I called him on his cell and he told me where to find the file. I opened that drawer of alphabetized files and immediately located the information. Had his office still been in the state of the before picture, I probably would have left frustrated and empty-handed.
If you are serious about making positive change happen in your organization take the lead and have lean begin with you. Remember, as a manager you establish the culture of your organization whether you realize it or not.

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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through