Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Six Sigma Features
Anthony D. Burns
Upcoming interactive mobile app demonstrates Deming’s process variation experiment
Tom Taormina
Champion business success and avoid risk
Michael Popenas
Enables companies to develop, design, test, and release products and services more quickly than other waterfall methods
James J. Kline
A sound quality management foundation exists in local government
Greg Hutchins
Risk is becoming our lens for everything from managing, to working, and even going to the store.

More Features

Six Sigma News
Too often process enhancements occur in silos where there is little positive impact on the big picture
Collect measurements, visual defect information, simple Go/No-Go situations from any online device
Good quality is adding an average of 11 percent to organizations’ revenue growth
Floor symbols and decals create a SMART floor environment, adding visual organization to any environment
A guide for practitioners and managers
Making lean Six Sigma easier and adaptable to current workplaces
Gain visibility into real-time quality data to improve manufacturing process efficiency, quality, and profits
Makes it faster and easier to find and return tools to their proper places
Version 3.1 increases flexibility and ease of use with expanded data formatting features

More News

Willie L. Carter

Six Sigma

A Lean Office Eliminates Waste and Saves Time

Lean goes way beyond the shop floor.

Published: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - 14:29

Higher customer expectations, cost-cutting pressures, thinner margins, and shorter lead times are some of the daily challenges that organizations face. A management system built around lean processes enables companies to achieve operational excellence, while providing flexibility in the way processes are managed. Organizations need robust, waste-free, flexible office processes that meet their customer needs and help them survive in the global marketplace.

Considering that 60 to 80 percent of all costs related to meeting customer demand are administrative or office-related functions, it doesn’t take rocket science to conclude that applying lean principles to streamline and eliminate waste from your office and administrative processes will result in bottom-line savings.

The benefits of a lean office

A lean office management system can affect administrative processes at all levels of your organization.

Enterprise-level processes—The processes that touch your external customers and suppliers: order entry, customer service, accounts payable, accounts receivables, marketing/sales, research and development, product development, and distribution. Lean management tools can streamline and speed up these processes.

Organizational-level processes—The key support processes in your organization: information technology, human resources, engineering, and purchasing. Lean will streamline these processes and improve process efficiency.

Department-level activities—Lean reduces activities that add time but little or no value. It can help create flow at the pull of the customer, reduce hand-offs, and improve departmental quality.

Individual-level tasks—Lean can reduce the paperwork, manual entries, and errors within standardized work procedures; help improve workplace organization; and clarify individual roles and responsibilities.

Getting started

Before applying lean tools to the office environment, we must understand the flow of work. Just as we map the value stream and focus on reducing lead time and eliminating waste in manufacturing, we must map administrative processes to better understand them and eliminate waste.

Processes such as order entry, quoting, planning, purchasing, product development, and others are full of waste. As a matter of fact, 75 to 90 percent of the steps in service and administrative processes add no value—the lean definition of waste. These wasteful steps cause delays and customer dissatisfaction.

Because one of the key principles of lean thinking is to minimize the time between the receipt of a customer order and fulfillment of that order, it's crucial to look at the entire lead time. To see the waste in these processes, we must map them. After we identify the waste (nonvalue-added steps) and what needs to be worked on, we can apply the traditional lean tools such as pull systems, continuous flow, co-location, point-of-use storage, continuous flow, 5S, visual controls, and mistake proofing.

Second, you must collect data. If you are like most organizations, you collect very limited data on your administrative processes. Office lean is not like manufacturing lean—it is based on data-driven decision making. For office and administrative processes, determining what data to include depends on the questions about your value stream you want answered and how you define the product or service produced by these processes. For example, if your objective is to reduce the number of engineering change orders (ECNs), it would be helpful to define ECNs as the product and identify the total number of ECNs issued, cycle time and queue time for processing, and total cycle time. From this information, you can determine where constraints most likely occur and can eliminate areas of waste in your “future state” process.

Examples of lean office applications

A steel fabricator’s value-stream map indicated that out of a total lead time of 22 weeks, only one week was spent doing true value-added work. This steel fabricator found that a large part of the nonvalue-added lead time was identified as “waiting for approval.” Approvals were built into many stages of the order fulfillment process, but were the responsibility of management staff, which was often unavailable. The steel fabricator standardized the work procedures to eliminate the need for many of the approvals and reduced its lead time by two weeks.

In reviewing the order entry process for a client, we found that a significant amount of time was used to acknowledge an order. Whenever an order was entered, an acknowledgement was automatically printed and then manually sorted and mailed to each customer. The first question we asked was, “Did the customer really want these acknowledgements; in other words, does it add value?” It turned out that only a few of their customers wanted an acknowledgement, and those that did said they would accept an e-mail response. The client changed their order processing system to code any customer seeking an acknowledgement, and then automatically acknowledged these customers via e-mail at the end of the order entry process. This resulted in freeing up overworked office staff to allow them to spend more time on value-added activities.

A loudspeaker manufacturer discovered that much of its lead time was attributed to delays in obtaining customer approvals during the design and prototype cycle. There was no effective means of managing the customer approval process. It seemed that once the information was given to the customer, it disappeared into a "black hole.” We suggested to the client that they develop a visual management system (a centrally located schedule board) that shows the status of every job in house. This provided visibility for every step of the process and reduced lead time in the design and prototype process by 50 percent.

As you can see by these examples, lean solutions are surprisingly simple and don't require great capital expenditure.

Lean is a proven, systematic approach for eliminating or minimizing waste that results in the production of goods or services at the lowest possible cost. It goes beyond the shop floor. Lean is every system, every process, and every employee in the company.


About The Author

Willie L. Carter’s picture

Willie L. Carter

Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates Inc., a process improvement consultancy. He helps managers unlock the full promise, speed, and energy of their processes. Carter’s certifications include, Lean Sensei, ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an experienced facilitator, coach, and author of the book, Process Improvement for Administrative Departments—The Key to Achieving Internal Customer Satisfaction (BookSurge Publishing, 2008). His company helps executives optimize their business processes to minimize their costs and accelerate their cycle time while simultaneously enabling them to do more with less. He can be reached at wcarter@quantumassocinc.com.