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Keith Groves


How to Translate Lean Principles Into Your Office Functions

Save time and money by applying these five concepts

Published: Wednesday, March 2, 2022 - 13:02

The lean manufacturing movement evolved from a desire to reduce waste and inefficiencies and improve productivity on the shop floor. Many manufacturers have also benefited from the resulting continuous improvement mindset as engaged employees became empowered to change things for the better. Moreover, just as you assign a value to the benefit of lean for production, you can do the same in the front office.

Lean principles apply to traditional scheduling functions, finance, even sales and marketing. Bringing lean principles to your manufacturing office will save you time and, ultimately, money by addressing these common issues:
• Nonvalue-added time spent on tasks
• Delays in communication
• Lack of proper information flow

A huge invisible wall often separates office functions from manufacturing operations. Each side may not understand what the other side does and how they do it. A lean office mindset will help with transparency and breaking down that wall.

Benefits of a lean office begin with standardization

The common belief has been that office work varies too much to be standardized. It’s not a production line, the argument goes. Yet, it’s the lack of standard office processes that often results in inconsistent information quality, which in turn requires extended time to address and correct. Applying lean principles to an office will:
• Improve processing time and handoffs by reducing steps and processes. You might be surprised by how many unnecessary tasks or touch points exist in a typical office based on “how we do things.”
• Provide greater control of information flow. It’s easier to tweak a systematic approach than a casual process.
• Lead to better and more responsive problem solving. Issues will emerge more quickly and be easier to identify.

What does a lean office look like?

Every office function produces something—the procurement department produces purchase orders; some areas produce an approval or a report. Let’s look at some examples of how lean concepts can help reduce variability in office functions:
• Purchase orders. Let’s say your shop operates on a 30-day lead time from receiving an order to delivery. Are there set parameters for breaking down that lead time? Does it align with who needs the most time to fulfill the order? How soon are all stakeholders even made aware of the order?
• Scheduling. If a work schedule never holds up, and someone downstream is frequently adjusting it, chances are creating the schedule isn’t a value-adding process. It may even create more work. Apply lean principles as you would to solve an operational bottleneck or an inventory issue.
• Batch processing. This also applies to periodic or unpredictable processing of documents. Often this is done for the convenience of one staff member, who may not realize they are batching and certainly isn’t aware of the negative effect it has on downstream processes.
• Data collection. Do you have set processes for data? Many manufacturers have gaps in communications or wait until the end of the month or a set period before looking at data. That may be OK, but if this information is going to affect the supply chain, people need to know promptly.

Many manufacturers understand the importance of how sales projections affect supplies, production staffing, and delivery times. What other information should be treated with the same discipline?

How to get started with a lean mindset in the office

Implementing lean in an office setting includes mapping the processes and applying the 5S principles. There often are shared attributes in the information processed in manufacturing offices (multiple departments rely on the information), so you may not need to do value stream mapping as you would for a production line.

Breaking down an office task includes identifying:
• Mapping. How does the task get done? Who does what as it moves through the organization?
• Value-add vs. nonvalue-add. With each touch point, what value is being added to the organization? Are there redundancies? Is all the information being used, or can you eliminate touch points?
• Measurables. This could simply be the number of handoffs and touch points. Even if every touch point adds value, you still may be able to consolidate them.

Mapping the office functions may be done with a simple flow chart (i.e., who does what in a sequence), but it often is better to use swim lane mapping. Think of a swimming pool with lanes being different departments or people in the office. You can easily map who does what as the document moves toward its finish line. Swim lane mapping often reveals inefficiencies and unneeded touch points, which are easily seen if your map reveals that the document itself frequently changes lanes as it moves through the office. Your process may be overly complex.

And it wouldn’t be “lean” if we did not apply the 5S principles to the office:
• Sort: Separate the necessary from the unnecessary.
• Simplify: Do away with everything that makes the work process complicated.
• Shine: Clean and inspect the office area regularly.
• Standardize: Establish strict guidelines for how the work is done and organized.
• Sustain: Keep the office productivity at a certain level and come up with new ways for improvement.

Employee involvement is key

As is the case on the operational side, the key to a successful lean office is the work culture. The must-have list begins with having the right people in the room and buy-in from leadership. Keys to a lean office are:
• Strong leadership that believes in the lean philosophy
• Constant internal messaging
• Making it part of the office’s DNA (i.e., how you do things)
• Training
• Showcasing the results and benefits achieved

One of the great ironies of office communications is that workplaces with fewer people often are among the least effective in communicating with each other. Few small manufacturers practice lean principles in their offices.

Your local MEP center can help

No matter the size of the manufacturing office, you must create trust so people are empowered to solve problems and aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Your local MEP Center can help you implement a lean/continuous improvement approach in your office.

First published Jan. 14, 2022, on NIST’s Manufacturing Innovation Blog.


About The Author

Keith Groves’s picture

Keith Groves

Keith Groves is a manufacturing consultant for the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services (UT CIS), part of the MEP National Network. He is an expert on lean methodologies and business transformation.