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The Lean Office - An Overlooked Opportunity for Continuous Improvement

“Office Team Image

Clerical functions exist in every business-manufacturing, health care, call centers, government, education-the list goes on and on.  Unfortunately, most of these environments have not considered the benefits of applying Lean concepts as a way to streamline their operations.  We have all encountered frustrations at one point or another in our personal lives through retuning a product, making a claim on our insurance, a miscellaneous purchasing transaction, even on-boarding for a job.  One might ask: how do we begin a Lean Office implementation?  Let’s explore this question!

First of all, we must consider that an office operates with a series of processes, and therefore, produces a “product”.  Many times, an office environment will not view their work as process based (although it should!). The “product”, while not as tangible as a manufactured widget, needs to be of a quality level and be delivered as a consistent output.  If your office is not capable of this, then this is where we should start.  Stabilization of the processes to assure that we understand and meet the Customer’s needs should be considered; i.e., the “Voice of the Customer”.  Everyone should ultimately understand their customers’ needs and have a process designed to deliver an acceptable level of service.

“Value Added Image

A good place to start is to create a Current State Value Stream Map for these functions.  This will allow us to:

A)     use a systems perspective,

B)      focus on the Customer’s requirements,

C)      link work and information flows,

D)     document delivery and quality performance, and

E)      highlight any problems.

And the real power of the Value Stream Map is the creation of a  Future State map, where we consider a process re-design to meet the agreed upon objectives.

During the creation of the Current State map, we are forced to list the Customer and their needs, the Supplier and how they interact, the information flow and the existing process flow and process metrics.  The result is a graphic illustration of how the process works now, and should uncover waste and problems with flow in the processes.  I have always felt that creating a Value Stream Map is an excellent way for a new employee to get a thorough understanding of the company and its’ inner workings.  And most current employees will find that they will leave the mapping process with a clearer understanding of the operation and the challenges of their fellow employees.

The main difference in Value Stream Mapping in the office versus the plant floor is often centered in the metrics.  We use process time (P/T), down time (D/T), lead time (L/T), and as a measure of quality, percent complete and accurate (%C/A).  In both scenarios, we walk the process and obtain data in real time.  The ease in getting the data varies from situation to situation, but is, never the less, the core of the exercise.  It is mission critical to get accurate data!

When we complete our Value Stream Mapping, we should have created the following: a Current State Map, a Future State Map, an Action List/Tracking sheet.   A kaizen approach can be used to tackle the action list, all in an effort to achieve the Future State ideal.  Some of the actions identified by kaizen bursts can be as follows:

1)      Process and Lead time improvements,

2)      reduction in the number of process steps,

3)      rework caused by missing info,

4)      improving our office or workstation layout,

5)      the need for cross training, and

6)      minimizing or eliminating the amount of variation in the work process.

“5S Image

When considering the need to improve our office or workstation layout, an excellent way to accomplish this is through the implementation of 5S in the office environment.  While the “S” categories are the same as in the manufacturing environment, we need to look at things differently.  Where we position tools, i.e., copiers, printers, supplies, etc., should be reviewed and improved.  In today’s world, the use of email and all forms of electronic communication is common place.  But most people do not have a clear idea regarding record retention, or how to set-up their computer to easily access files and information, or how to manage basic data.  These topics should be covered as part of basic Office 5S training.  It is a good idea prior to conducting such training to establish guidelines regarding how the company expects these electronic resources to be managed and utilized.  This could include a call to the legal department to get updated guidelines on record retention.  And in the end, everyone should appreciate a clean and neat work environment.

While we have already mentioned one of the four steps to the implementation of Lean, Stabilization - the other 3 steps are Standardization, Visualization, and Continual Improvement.  The use of Standardized Work in the office is often viewed as difficult to implement due to the amount of variation in the activities that take place.  Generally, the first step of Standardization is to identify all activities that take place in a given process.  This is started during the VSM process, and is defined further by study and then prioritized based upon data collection and review.  It is often time consuming and tedious to look at multiple individuals that are performing the same clerical task and then determine what is the “best practice” for a given activity, and can be difficult to get consensus within the group.  The team will participate in this activity, and begin to create the actual standard in a simple, yet visual way.  Once the future state is mapped, training and monitoring are the final stages of the process of implementing a new standard.

The benefit of implementing Standardized Work in the office setting is often magnified in comparison to the plant floor due to the lack of having to overcome the existing standard.  In the end, we strive to create a more repeatable and stable process within our office function.  It is reasonable to believe that we can standardize any repetitive work, and finding the best way to perform a process step is a key to success.  Keep in mind, Standardized Work does NOT replace training; it is a complement to training.

Advantage Kentucky Alliance offers a full complement of Lean resources to help with your plant or office continuous improvement needs.  We would be happy to engage with your team to help improve your bottom line results. To inquire further about these lean office services or any of our continuous improvement services or growth services, you can contact Kurt Felten, AKA’s Marketing Specialist, at (606) 620-0076 or email him at  You can see more about AKA and what we’ve been doing recently in Kentucky by visiting our website

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