Difficulties with Changing to a Lean Culture: Part VI
Office Lean – does it matter?
Where will the “human-side” of Lean hit you? Mike Thelen shares experiences with bringing Lean to the
office in Part VI.
As is the case with any Lean implementation in a Traditional environment, culture (or more specifically
culture change) will be the most difficult obstacle to success. While a company can hire consultants,
develop work teams, and even begin Lean initiatives, if the company only "talks the talk", the initiative
soon becomes just that, talk.
Marketing in a Lean world.
I received an interesting piece of "junk mail" this morning. What caught my attention and provoked me to
open it was simply that it was from an overseas automobile manufacturer and my Lean obsessive-ness
Now, I know this manufacturer isn't necessarily using the TPS philosophy, but I understand that they do
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 it had a
fancy, matte finish that added no value to the customer but surely cost more), I was immensely
Let me begin by providing necessary background information. I live on a farm in South Dakota. It is 20
miles to the nearest population worth noting (24,000 people). It is 180 miles to any city over 100,000
people. The vast majority of people in this region of the US share the same scenario. This is also the
heart of 4x4 country and it is October...less than 30 days from our first expected snowfall. People in the
'Great Plains', as this region is described, are also more traditional in nature (conservative or down-to-
earth are perhaps better definitions.)
With this in mind, I was expecting a Lean-thinking organization to gear its marketing campaign (based on
the customer, right?) toward one of two factors for this region. It would focus on either the Truck/SUV
product line or on the excellent gas mileage capabilities of their cars. Which did I receive?
I thought the latter. The mailer was focused on a specific car model. Naturally, I scanned the materials
for the infamous MPG Ratings. 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 non-automotive types). The mailer provided torque, performance,
and other details as well. However, there wasn't one mention of fuel economy throughout several sheets
of paper. The mailer did inquire as to when I may be in the market for a new vehicle. I guess that was an
attempt at customer focus.
Some might say, "yeah, but you're thinking about that manufacturer now!" when questioning the
effectiveness of the marketing. However, even though I'm thinking of the manufacturer, 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 since they really don't understand my needs.
Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh on this manufacturer. After all, the domestic automobile manufacturers
aren't sending me junk mail. Either way, waste is waste. More importantly, waste is not limited to the
shop floor. In the foreign manufacturer’s case, marketing waste will keep them from building my next
vehicle (perhaps creating manufacturing waste in the process?)
It is often difficult to lead Lean initiatives into office areas such as sales or marketing. Value is not 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
really where we truly have an opportunity to understand our most important customer, the end-user. If we
spend thousands of dollars courting customers incorrectly, is that any less wasteful than making defective
product? Market research, design functionality, responsiveness, among many factors, can greatly assist
asset utilization. Yes Sales, Marketing, Engineering and all other employees are assets. How we utilize
them is, at least, just as important as how we utilize 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 is not 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 and 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
[available at http://www.leanblog.org], the staff member in the position of Patient Care Flow Manager
commented that she knew when to stage the next patient based on hearing where the hygienist was in
her work. Since 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 specific sales person.
Implementing kanban is also valuable to office areas. 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 needs.
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 over $1 million annually. Sometimes it is 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
over 150,000 custom-windowed envelopes (almost 3-year supply) consuming valuable shipping floor
space. In addition, boxes of these envelopes are kept in the administration building at various desks
(point-of-use) without anyone 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 utilize Lean must also 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 those individuals saying “yes sir”. Worse yet, organizations
operate with one functional department complaining at or about another, rather than focusing on the
problem that occurred. One of the basic steps an organization can take is simply to create a
problem/countermeasure/solution board to visually 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 is often difficult for an individual to understand why a
suggestion is not implemented. This is typical of the traditional ‘suggestion box’. To have respect for
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 impact of the request. Note, by including a cost/benefit, the
individual is driven to show the improvement gains from the suggestion, not merely “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. They are 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 would not
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."
Mike Thelen is Lean Facilitator at Aberdeen, SD based Hub City, Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corporation,
Beloit, WI. He has led Lean Initiatives in positions from Front-Line Supervisor to System Facilitator in various
corporations since 2001. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.