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Mike Thelen

Quality Insider

Changing to Lean, Part 6

Does office lean matter?

Published: Monday, July 14, 2008 - 21:00

I received an interesting piece of junk mail recently. What caught my attention and provoked me to open it was simply that it was from an overseas automobile manufacturer and my lean obsessiveness engaged.

I know this manufacturer isn’t necessarily using the Toyota production system, but I understand that they have their own system based on similar principles. Correct or not, that belief was the motivation that kept me from simply discarding the mail unopened. Upon opening the envelope (aside from noting that it had a fancy matte finish that added no value to the customer but surely cost more), I was immensely disappointed.

Let me provide some background information. I live on a farm in South Dakota. It’s 20 miles to the nearest population center worth noting (24,000 people). It’s 180 miles to any city with more than 100,000 people. The vast majority of people in this region of the United States share the same scenario. This is also the heart of 4x4 country, and it is October—fewer than 30 days from our first expected snowfall.

With this in mind, I was expecting a lean-thinking organization to focus its marketing campaign (based on the customer, right?) for this region on either trucks and SUVs or on the excellent gas mileage of its cars. Which did I receive?

The mailer was focused on a specific car model, and I scanned the materials for its mileage rating. Instead, I found that this model comes with three engine choices delivering (Motor-heads, forgive me if I’m not accurate—I’ve already thrown the mailer away.) roughly from 175 hp to 265 hp (horsepower for you nonautomotive types). The mailer provided torque, performance, and other details, but there wasn’t one mention of fuel economy. The mailer also inquired as to when I may be in the market for a new vehicle, which I guess was an attempt at customer focus.

When discussing the effectiveness of the marketing, some might say, ”You’re thinking about that manufacturer now!” True, but I’m not thinking of buying from the manufacturer. Instead, I’m thinking about how the mailer has completely turned me away from the manufacturer, because they don’t understand my needs.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on this manufacturer, but waste isn’t limited to the shop floor. In this foreign manufacturer’s case, marketing waste will keep them from building my next vehicle, perhaps creating manufacturing waste in the process.

It’s often difficult to lead lean initiatives in office areas such as sales or marketing. Value isn’t as easily determined in this setting as it is on the manufacturing floor. Often, people lose focus on who the customers are, what their needs are, and how office staff can satisfy those customers. Yet the office is where we have an opportunity to understand our most important customer—the end-user. Spending thousands of dollars courting customers incorrectly is no less wasteful than making defective product. Market research, design functionality, and responsiveness, among many factors, can greatly assist asset utilization. Yes, salespeople, marketers, engineers, and all other employees are assets. How we use them is at least as important as how we use a piece of machinery.

If the manufacturing department is producing a quality product with industry-leading lead time at a cost that appears acceptable to customers, why isn’t the product flying off the shipping docks? The customer must be dissatisfied about something. Have sales and customer service done an effective job of learning the customers’ desires? Is there a design flaw that engineering isn’t aware of or has not resolved? Spreading lean into office areas, where problems are identified and waste is eliminated, will help identify the true root cause in this scenario.

So what can be done in office settings? First, organize the offices. Yes, 5S can be used, but each desk may not be the same. All people in all areas don’t necessarily require all information. Yet, any person may need any piece of information at any time (apparent in cross-training, specifically across product lines in a sales or engineering department). Rather than focusing on taping out the stapler, focus initially on standardizing the information where it can be found readily by anyone.

Once you’ve standardized information availability, standardize the procedures for the job. For example, in a recent LeanBlog interview with Dr. Sam Bahri (called the world’s first lean dentist) and his staff, the patient care flow manager commented that she knew when to stage the next patient based on hearing where the hygienist was in her work. Because they have a standardized process, she could tell how much time was left with that appointment, without ever having to interrupt. Imagine if a switchboard operator could tell how much time a salesperson needed to wrap up the call he or she was currently on. The operator would then know how long the next caller might be on hold to speak with that salesperson.

Kanban is also valuable to offices. Years ago I worked with an administrative assistant who “leaned” the office-supplies ordering system. She provided kanban cards to all departments in a large facility for supplies such as pens, pencils, tape, copy paper, and other miscellaneous items. Working with a national vendor and the local office, she could get next-day replenishment to a signal, delivered by the vendor to the point of use. It was a form of vendor-managed inventory with no extra work for her. This arrangement was made while still securing a significant discount with a single-source supplier. This saved the facility more than $1 million annually. Sometimes it’s unimaginable how many pens a company can have throughout a facility.

Just recently, in performing a clean sweep kaizen activity in the shipping area of our facility, we found more than 150,000 custom-windowed envelopes (almost a 3-year supply) consuming valuable shipping floor space. In addition, boxes of these envelopes were being kept in the administration building at various desks (point-of-use) without anyone being aware of the supply held in the shipping racks. Even worse, the vendor who provides these envelopes is located less than 1 mile from the facility. Standardization, 5S, and a kanban system would eliminate this overproduction (over-ordering) and inventory—two vital wastes.

Corporations wanting to go lean must learn how to encourage value-added, two-way communication in office settings. Many organizations believe that two-way communication is the manager telling subordinates what to do, and the subordinates saying “Yes, sir.” Worse yet, organizations operate with one functional department complaining to or about another, rather than focusing on the problem itself. One of the basic steps an organization can take is simply to create a problem-countermeasure-solution board to display the error and what can or should be done to resolve it. This tool works exceptionally well in office and support environments.

Continuing the theme of two-way communication, it’s often difficult for an individual to understand why a suggestion isn’t implemented. This is typical of the traditional suggestion box. To respect people, and for your employees to become more valuable, you need to provide them with proper tools. A kaizen request form is a viable and valuable option. This form requires the individual to provide the current state, future state, and cost/benefit effect of the request. Note that by including cost and benefit, the individual is driven to show the improvement gains from the suggestion, not merely to “ask for the world.”

As with manufacturing implementations, the key to successful office implementation is to find the informal lean leaders, those who see the value and will drive change. Provide them with training, direction, and support. Let them lead the initiative in their areas. They will garner far more support than someone outside the system. Each department has these leaders, and they’re often the employees who have made past suggestions that were ignored or new employees with charismatic leadership qualities.

There is no magic pill for lean initiatives. The lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the lean initiative will fail, becoming the flavor of the week that everyone knew wouldn’t last.

Remember this from Taiichi Ohno, “All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes.”

Previous articles in this series: Part 1: Roll-out (-through, -by, -over) Part 2: No magic pill Part 3: Lean vs. L.A.M.E. Part 4: Process improvement—where do we start? Part 5: Why are we doing this?

About the author Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.


About The Author

Mike Thelen’s picture

Mike Thelen

Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.