Monday, February 6, 2012

Lean in the Office: Digital Workspace

Executive Summary:
In the office environment, our work does not take place on our desks, but on our computers and in our digital networks.  Break the Lean paradigm of the manufacturing environment and apply the same principles to your digital workspace for surprising gains and reductions of wasted time and money.

The Rest of the Story:
If you have one of those Lean manuals or books that tells you to apply Lean to your office environment by re-organizing your bookshelf and establishing a set place for your stapler, or especially if it says you should organize your office work teams into U-shaped work cells, chuck it in the trash!  There are many of these resources, and they have all missed the real opportunity.

Think about it for a moment.  How much time do you waste looking for your stapler?  I don’t even deal with paper anymore.  I don’t need a stapler, and on the rare occasions that I do, I can find one quickly enough.  How often do you waste time because you must pass work to another coworker and their desk is far away?  Since your work is in a digital format, do you do anything other than post it in a digital workplace such as a cloud or shared file folder, or do you e-mail it?  Does it matter if your coworker is in a U-shaped cell with you, or if that coworker is in another country?

Naturally, since our work is now digital, we can ask the reasonable question, “Does the Lean methodology even apply to office work?”  Let’s examine the question and the answer by assessing waste in our offices.  Do you spend time waiting for something so you can get work completed?  Does work spend time waiting for someone to get around to accomplishing it?  Do you spend time doing stuff that doesn’t actually produce meaningful information or furthering progress toward profit for the business?  Of course we all do; so the waste is present.

Is that waste significant enough to apply a methodology toward eliminating it?  Let’s look.  Suppose the burdened rate for a random office employee is $50 per hour.  In the office, it’s probably much more than that for a salaried professional, but we’ll stick to the number for the sake of a conservative and simple examination.

Let’s say that the average office employee expends 2 hours a day looking for information, waiting for information, doing things that don’t actually produce or improve information or constructive work, or otherwise not producing.  Again, it’s probably a conservative estimate.  Let’s add up one year of that outlook.  That makes 2 hours times $50 per hour or $100/day for 5 days each week for 50 weeks.  My calculator says that’s $25,000 per employee per year.  Say your office has 100 employees.  That makes for $2,500,000 a year in wasted man-hours.  I don’t know about your business, but that looks like a very big opportunity for Lean problem solving to me.

In my experience, in large businesses and corporations, there is more opportunity to eliminate waste in the office than there is on the production floor.  Yet, most Lean practitioners get stuck in the manufacturing environment and don’t see or realize how to apply the same methodology to the digital workspace.  Let’s get us all started.

First, let’s look at the classic Lean wastes.  Then we can look at how they manifest in the digital world.  This should get us started.  Armed with a basic paradigm shift, we can quickly apply the same tools and methods to eliminating a whole new world of waste.

The classic Lean wastes are as follows.
  • Defects:  work that is not right the first time and either creates problems or requires rework
  • Inventory:  work that is waiting around for someone to process it
  • Waiting:  people that are waiting around for work to get to them
  • Transportation:  work that is being passed from one point of contact to another – usually leads to waiting and inventory
  • Motion:  people that are going through effort without improving or furthering the work
  • Over Processing:  people doing more effort than is necessary to complete the work
  • Overproduction:  producing more work than is necessary 

Let’s look at each one in turn and how it manifests in a digital workspace.  With such a perspective we can begin to see how Lean tools and methods can be applied to eliminate the waste.

Defects come in many forms in the office, more so than the manufacturing floor.  In the office a defect is any piece of information that is not correct or is not understood.  That’s right, a misunderstanding is a defect.  Think about it.  A misunderstanding requires that one party re-explain something to another at best.  At worst, it creates work that was unnecessary because some decision or other work must be reversed or undone because of the misunderstanding.

To this end, stop the practice of using e-mail to communicate.  It is a poor communication method, prone to communication defects.  Use e-mail to deliver information.  Use the phone or an in-person conversation to communicate.

Use the poke-yoke principle on digital work.  For digital forms, use pull-down or “button” options to fill out or complete the form.  Make it as difficult as possible to create a misunderstanding or to require interpretation and, therefore, back-and-forth questions, or to fill out the form incorrectly. 

Eliminate duplicates of information.  We’ll talk about this again when we discuss Overproduction and Over Processing.  As soon as there are two versions of some piece of information one will get further processing and another will not.  Therefore, one will become defective.  Think about how often you have worked from the wrong version of some information and how much additional work was needed to fix the problems that created.

Lastly, information that arrives too soon or too late is also defective.  If it is too soon, it becomes inventory and may be out of context by the time it is processed.  If it is too late, well, we all know that well enough.

A common place where we find work waiting to be processed is our e-mail inbox, and our veritable to-do list.  Any place where we post or send information to be reviewed, improved, added to, completed, or otherwise processed is a stockpile of work waiting to be done.  Apply the pull-system, load leveling, and visual workspace tools to this problem to change behaviors and reduce the wait time for work in inventory.

We all wait for information so we can complete our work.  U-shaped work cells don’t reduce this effect.  My two biggest pieces of advice to eliminate this waste are as follows.
  1. Minimize the use of e-mail as a communication medium.  It is a poor medium for discussions to begin with.  Also, e-mail is prone to the inventory problem.  You will wait because your work is waiting in an inbox.  Use the phone or go talk to a person directly to let them know you need something or to discuss what you need.  Many times you can get the information right away, during the contact.
  2. Stop the practice of multitasking.  I’ve written before about how multitasking is a vicious circle of waste.  We multi-task because we are waiting and, knowing that people will wait, we assign multiple tasks or projects to people.  The problem is that while we are working on one task, other work is waiting for our attention.  Stop the cycle the best you can.

Otherwise, use your value-stream maps and look for inventory and other waiting opportunities in the way work is processed and try to eliminate them.  I say them, both inventory and waiting, because one usually leads to the other and they exacerbate each other. 

This manifests in the form of a hand-off.  Understand that the work itself may not actually move in a digital environment.  It may be posted in exactly the same place in the digital system, but the person that must work on it might be different.  Every time this happens, the work becomes Inventory; it is waiting for someone to process it.  Look for these hand-offs and decide if they are really necessary.  Eliminate them as much as possible.

Posting to a single location is much better than e-mailing work around.  It is much safer and reduces the opportunities for some of the other wastes we are discussing.  Reviews, approvals, and signatures are the most common causes for hand-offs.  Do these things in person if possible.  Eliminate them as much as possible.  If your office is still requiring a physical signature on a piece of paper, get over it and invent or adopt a different way that requires less movement and waiting for work.

Motion is more than people leaving their desks and going to a meeting.  That is the least of the sources in most offices.  The meeting itself can be waste in the category of Motion because people are sitting around meeting and are not getting any work done.  Eliminate meetings for the sake of communication as much as possible.  If the meeting it the fastest way to transfer information correctly then so be it, just make it as efficient as possible.  Meetings are a batch process and, therefore, not Lean.  Meetings during which decisions are made, work is processed, or morale is enhanced are not waste.

Looking for information is wasted Motion.  The faster we can access information to do our work, the better.  The faster we can find our work so we can process it, the better.  Organize your digital information to eliminate searching as much as possible.  There is no one right way to do this.  However, I have a personal preference toward incorporating “mind-mapping” software solutions to aid in this arena. 

There are a number of mind-mapping solutions out there, some are free, and others cost more than a grand for a multi-user license.  These mind-map solutions allow a visual map of information to act as a pathway to other maps or to information locations.  In short, they are a digital aid to applying the visual workspace concept to our digital information storage.  Lean’s 5S tools are also very useful for organizing our digital information.

Over Processing:
If you must touch the same piece of information more than once, there might be an Over Processing problem.  If work is repetitive, can it be reduced, eliminated, or automated?  An example is the processing of order entry forms or engineering change requests.  Look for ways to eliminate the time it takes to fill out, review, approve, or otherwise process forms.

Another place where Over Processing strikes are repeat reports.  If a worker must provide the same information to multiple recipients in multiple formats, such can be considered Over Processing.  We can argue that it is Overproduction just as well, but since much of the work of producing reports may not actually work toward producing revenue or profit for the business, it might not fit into the “production” category.  Regardless of semantics, multiple reports of the same information are waste.

Make an effort to create a single weekly or monthly dashboard (visual workspace) that everyone must learn to use.  Let only the owners of the original information post that information to the dashboard.  Make is as quick and easy as possible to both update the dashboard and to review and understand it.

A caution concerning automation as a solution:  if the result of the process is unnecessary information, redundant information, defective information, or work delivered faster than downstream processes need it or can use it, then the automation is just generating more waste faster.  Be judicious in the use of automation as a solution to Over Processing.

There are several examples of making more work or more output than necessary in a typical office environment.  One of the biggest examples is multiple copies of anything.  Because it is perceived as “free” or effortless to create multiple digital copies, we think that it is no big deal, that it even makes things easier.  Unfortunately, multiple copies typically leads to people needing to Over Process in order to clean up those multiple copies, or defects as one copy is modified and others are not.

Another example is too many projects.  How often do you work on a project, a proposal, a design, or a report, only to discover than your many man-hours invested will not be acted upon or even reviewed?  That is all waste.  Stop the practice of making reports no one reads, or asking for proposals or information people don’t really want. 

In some cases, particularly marketing plans or innovation and R&D, we deliberately create multiple concepts so we can select the best one for final development.  If the other options are forgotten or lost, they become waste.  If they are stored away and never again brought out, they are likewise wasted.  However, if they are somehow re-cycled or re-used in other efforts, or their information and findings are made available for other solutions, they are not waste.

Applying the Lean method:
The descriptions above are just a starting place for us to perceive how the classic definitions of waste, according to Lean, apply to our digital workspaces.  By understanding how the classic wastes manifest, we can then use the same lean tools, such as pull systems, Poke-Yoke, Kaizen, 5S, automation, value-stream maps, and visual workspace to attack waste in much the same way we do in the manufacturing environment.

The best part about applying the Lean principles in the office is that you can do it for yourself as an individual, or for your entire work team, or for the entire business.  Obviously, the greater the field of focus, the greater the opportunity to impact business performance.  Start by applying it to your own inboxes and behaviors and your own outputs.  Once you get the hang of it, expand from there to ever increasing scopes.  You could very well become the office hero.

If you would like more insights concerning how these tools and principles apply to the office environment, please peruse some of my other, related posts.  I have written several along this theme.  Use my Web page’s search field for posts beginning with the phrase “Lean in the Office.”  I will continue to write more on this subject, so come back and search every once in a while.

Stay wise, friends.

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