The lean office

Posted on 18 Apr 2008 by The Manufacturer

Steve Boam explains how the lean drive can be enhanced by expanding the focus to include the office and support process areas

Many lean initiatives are borne from, and focus on, the shopfloor – in particular bottleneck areas within the operation. As long as these areas support customer delivery, performance and quality, then why not? There are no text book places to start. If decisions are based on need and business logic, and you can easily see where and what the benefit will be, then you have started in a good place.
Beginning at the top and working down through the senior management is the best way to start. Often, though, the ‘lean believers’ are not top management. The risks are frequently taken by middle management or in an offline discreet area.
No matter where the lean leap of faith is taken, starting small and progressively rolling out across the organisation is a safe, sensible and achievable way to proceed.
At some point in the lean journey you will include physically contributing processes. Typically these will include operational functions, safety, quality, supply chain, logistics (internal and external), engineering and of course support functions (purchasing, HR, finance, IT, recruitment, corporate services). Developing lean into support functions and processes is an essential part of developing a truly lean enterprise. Some have termed this the lean office. And yet others have ignored these areas completely. Toyota has addressed its supporting processes, so that they add value in terms of information, responsiveness, accuracy, real time information and support to ensuring product flow is not interrupted or delayed due to hidden off-line and often invisible processes.
If you consider your business holistically, there is so much value to be added by ensuring these processes are in-line and contributing to total operating performance, work flow and customer delivery.
Recently, I visited a company that had improved its manufacturing performance tenfold. Capacity was at an all time high and with minimal additional overhead. This was commendable. However, as a total end-to-end process it had introduced other issues. Stock, WIP (work in progress) and therefore the financial burden, had all increased. With minimum effort, and after some persuasion, the company looked into its supporting processes. It eventually transpired that there was a paperwork delay in signing out finished product and updating the tired manual system. This simple, yet invisible process, was affecting sign-out, customer delivery, invoicing and therefore payments from the customers. All the internal effort and development had been in vain – constrained by the bottleneck right at the end of the process.
This demonstrates that, for many, lean increases operational performance. But many are still blinkered to the wider picture, which is to consider the end-to-end processes. If we don’t address the whole system, we can not work and deliver in harmony – or more importantly at the rate, cost and level agreed by the customer. As the lean message spreads we see many great examples in the service sector, where they only have processes and computer systems to manage their service offerings or products. Many of the lean tools can be applied to the office area without major modification, if we consider lean as a methodology and not just a set of tools.
My message is simple, when trying to become a lean enterprise we also need to lean on our support areas. Start with a 30,000 foot view of your business before drilling down into individual areas, and don’t forget the invisible bits.