The question many of my clients ask is “can you apply Lean Practices to office/administrative processes or a service based business?” The answer I always give to this question is YES!

Then, why do so many companies struggle with the application of common-sense Lean Practices to office and service processes?  The main reason is that the nature of work performed in the office or service is different than a traditional manufacturing company.

But how is it exactly different? Most clients point to the variability of the work, the multi-tasking, the unpredictability of demand, and the “creative” nature of the work.  All of these are valid points but most of these are created by the companies themselves.

A big problem is that companies tend to focus strictly on lean “tools,” and fail to fundamentally change how work is performed and how it flows.  Another pitfall of many lean office and service efforts is the lack of alignment to an organization’s strategy and key business objectives.  Upon learning a new tool, people tend to go out and seek an application but these efforts do not always provide the results expected because they are not aligned with the key objectives of the business.  In such situations, it is management that tends to become discouraged and the practices are abandoned.  This is not due to the ineffectiveness of lean practices, but rather the fact that management did not thoughtfully consider the particular business processes that need to be re-designed in order for the organization to realize its objectives.  The lean office and service effort should focus on the key business processes that directly affect the organization’s ability to deliver value to its customers.

Let’s cover four basic steps to the application of lean in office and service workplaces:

  • Stabilize
  • Standardize
  • Visualize
  • Improve

Stabilize

The objective of this step is to create predictable and repeatable outputs.  In office and service environments it can be more difficult to assure the quality of the output because the “product” is not as tangible.  If your office or service process is incapable of delivering a consistent output, then your lean effort must begin here.  You need to identify the source of the instability, which most often is an inadequate understanding of customer needs.  In these situations, you’ll start fairly small, by clearly defining the needs of the customer, documenting them in simple ways (such as checklists), and providing training to office and service personnel.

Standardize

The objective of this step is to take “tribal knowledge” from experience define a specific process for all employees to understand and follow.  Mapping the entire process can provide much needed definition and make it easier to identify nonstandard conditions.  These are conditions that must be addressed to return the process to acceptable levels of performance.  Nonstandard conditions will not be recognizable if there are no standards to compare them to.

Visualize

The objective of this step is to have the most effective and efficient method of communication.  Lean enterprises always look to improve visibility throughout their operations to create “transparency.”  Organizations should make performance more visible.  A visual workplace is one that is easier to manage over time.  With work instructions and prioritization rules posted visibly, less time will be needed to direct the most basic activities.  A visual workplace makes it easier to drive continuous improvement, the real objective of lean, and the next step.

Improve

The objective of this step is the core of Lean Practices.  Your focus is to improve performance and continuously improve. My suggestion is to always go for “low hanging fruit” at the beginning of this practice.  This smaller scale approach will help you see the value in the process without frustrating your employees due to extreme change.  As you notch wins on your belt and gain support, you can then try to attack a larger process.  Your goal is to get support enough from the bottom and top of the organization so continuous improvement becomes part of your organization’s culture.  For Lean Practices to be effective for long periods of time, you need effective leaders who provide a learning environment where it’s safe for experimentation.  And you need personnel development practices to sustain the system even in the event of a change in leadership. Few organizations sufficiently invest in the development of their people.

As common sense as lean is, it is still not common practice. While the common-sense nature of lean concepts will resonate with most people, the successful application of lean requires fundamental behavioral change in many people.  People are creatures of habit, and have difficulty changing.  But you can create new habits, given sufficient time and support.