How to apply lean principles to your office
September 12, 2014 | 9:00 am CDT
I just returned from a short-term mission trip where I had the opportunity to use my gifts and talents in an entirely different venue, and in a way that is contrary to what I promote at my client companies, but more on that latter part later. That work reminded me of a request from a reader to spend some time defining Lean thinking in an office environment. It may take more than one article to cover the subject so stay tuned.
As you may know from other reading or from attending conferences and seminars, what I refer to as the Lean Business Philosophy, or simply Lean Thinking, is generally termed Lean Manufacturing. I don’t use that term because it suggests that everything that is wrong in a manufacturing operation is the fault of production and if the production processes get fixed, then the whole enterprise will be improved. It has been my experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Eliminating the mystique of that assertion is what this series will attempt to do.


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5S in the office

A few years ago, while facilitating the lean transformation at the Worden Company, I stopped by the Sales Manager’s office to casually introduce her to the idea of Workplace Organization (5S) in her office. Worden had embarked on 5S throughout the enterprise, but the office staff wasn’t embracing the challenge like the shop was.
As is the case in most businesses, the office staff felt they were too busy or not in need of such foolishness in their work area. After all, the individual office person was the only one who used their space so what difference would it make if they applied 5S thinking to the way they organized or approached their work?
That wasn’t the response I received from the sales manager, but then she was more inclined to political correctness in her responses. She said she knew the office needed work and that she was even embarrassed to bring a potential customer into her office, but she just didn’t have the time to tackle it. She went on to say that she was meeting a potential customer in one of the conference rooms a short while after our conversation. A view of her office will give you an idea of why she was embarrassed to meet with anyone there. Does it look familiar? Are you embarrassed about how your office looks? The solution is pretty simple – just follow the steps of Workplace Organization and the embarrassment will be gone. You will be more productive as well, but more on that later.

Office transformation

Since the CEO was the coordinator of the 5S program in the office, the Sales Manager wasn’t able to dodge the issue indefinitely. It took some time, but she Sorted through the clutter and disposed of most of the old and unnecessary stuff; Set-in-Order everything that she determined to be necessary for her job and defined locations according to frequency of use; Shined the cabinets, desk, and other fixtures, and replaced worn or broken items; Standardized the sales forms and the client follow-up process (this is a subject that will be covered later); and established a discipline to ensure Sustainability.
I sneaked into her office after she started the 5S process to capture the difference. One thing I noticed was how the office went from dark and uninviting to bright and cheerful. There was now a sense of organization and an elimination of stress and chaos. This picture isn’t the final transformation shot, but she was getting pretty close. Each subsequent review of the 5S process will further eliminate unnecessary stuff and likely reduce the need for wall storage, but every improvement effort has to begin with a first step.

Chaos or order

While working with the staff of a college in Kentucky I had the opportunity to see an even more profound office transformation take place. I don’t know how many readers have been in a college instructor’s office so those who haven’t experienced a visit will just have to believe me when I say that the before picture of this instructor’s office is fairly representative of most of them.
The instructor prided himself on being a multitasker, so the chaos seen by others was order to him. The work-in-progress that can be seen on the desk is very similar to what might be seen on the production floor of a non-lean manufacturing operation. There were piles of partially completed tasks scattered around the desk with nothing being completed with any semblance of flow. Like the sales manager at Worden, this instructor had to leave his work area to meet with people because his office was too distracting and chaotic for a visitor to focus on a quality conversation.
Once he understood the potential benefit of Workplace Organization he embraced it fully and reorganized the office to create continuous flow and to allow anyone needing access to his records to find them easily and return them properly.

Lean mission

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had the opportunity to apply these techniques in the office at the mission I was serving. They had just gone through a leadership change and the new director wasn’t familiar with the old order of things, so he and I tackled organizing the office to be more productive and inviting.
Unfortunately, I didn’t go there prepared for the work that took place so I don’t have before and after pictures to share. However, the office at the mission was in worse condition than the example of the college office above. The outgoing leadership had been in place for more than 30 years, and there were files and paperwork that predated that person’s tenure. The office had three open shelf units similar to the Worden sales office, two filing cabinets, six built-in base cabinets, and four desks. When we completed organizing all of the necessary stuff, we had eliminated two of the open shelf units and both of the file cabinets. The office suddenly took on a warm and bright appearance and the atmosphere changed from chaos and confusion to tranquil and inviting.
The new director said he felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he could now focus on moving the mission forward.
The only downside of the reorganization of the mission office was the fact that the director and I did it in a vacuum without the participation of the end users. Since there is no office staff employed at this time we had no other choice. I don’t recommend the implementation of any lean tool or technique, especially Workplace Organization, be done without the involvement of the process owners. The next article will focus on tying all of the processes together to create flow, including integrating sales, engineering, purchasing, and every other office function into the internal customer/supply chain.

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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