In a rudimentary way we can identify the main areas of waste in an office environment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced these in our working lives.

  1. Bottleneck departments: Areas where the processes are often poorly defined and inefficient so “log jams” occur. Perhaps if the process has been made efficient, there is just insufficient resource to make it happen.
  2. Too many validation checks: Sometimes there are just too many people in the approval process and most not adding value in any way. Managers hold things up through procrastination, by being a signatory although they don’t actually evaluate the subject matter (sometimes through just wanting the status that goes with it!), or by just not being there to sign when required. As an example, we all know how impossible it is to raise a cheque within a business!
  3. Over complex: Processes that are far too complicated. Especially those which have been developed iteratively over time that add little value. Perhaps the processes have not been developed by the people that actually do the work but by a well meaning, or controlling, manager.
  4. Multiple uncontrolled documents in circulation: A lack of document control or a system that isn’t followed because of ill discipline and no “buy in” from employees. Perhaps it’s a process that’s just too unwieldy and complicated to work. Paper copies are often produced that are soon out of date and that may have been superseded by newer ones that are probably electronic. This leads to major risks of poor decision making in the organisation. Of course multiple copies of electronic documents are made that often clog up servers with duplicates or various revisions. Copies are kept within “outlook” folders. Data is also transferred to Excel spreadsheets for analysis purposes where the document is uncontrolled and often the formulae are not checked.
  5. Batching of documents: Work piling up in in-trays waiting to be processed or for the person to find time to do it. This builds up a pile of inventory. Additionally, in the digital world, emails remain unanswered and filling up “to do” folders in personal outlook inboxes. Always best to process and move it on without delay!
  6. High levels of data re-entry and re-keying: Incompatible systems relying on multiple data entry to make things happen. Very little value added and a very depressing job to have to do. A major area where mistakes are made leading to re-work.
  7. Production of reports that nobody uses: Overlong, complex reports that are either too complicated or are full of irrelevant information. The reports often take so long to compile that they are not part of the decision making process, as they are too late. Even worse is that some people take time out to read them!

In my experience of lean the emphasis is often on activities in obvious places such as the factory floor and yet other areas of the enterprise seem to escape. It seems strange that attention is made of getting goods out of the factory quickly and efficiently and yet paperwork and office systems escape with little analysis or reform.

What other steps can businesses take?

There are other ways that offices can become more lean.

  • If you adopt tools to measure progress in the business make sure these are related to achieving the business plan and that management actually use them. Too often they have no relation to policy deployment.
  • Ensure fast track routes don’t slow-up everything else. And make sure managers or persuasive employees don’t by-pass the proper processes to get their jobs done first. We have all met “he who shouts loudest gets his job done first”. Often the more important tasks are then behind schedule and not completed on time.
  • Make sure there are no personal filing systems. It’s important to make sure that official company wide systems such as the Client Relationship Management (CRM) are used. Addresses should not be kept on Excel spreadsheets, in Outlook contacts, business card books or other databases, particularly on smart devices. Paper filing systems in cabinets or desks which are locked or are not understood by anyone else can hinder a business.
  • Address processing lead-times. Work should not be taken on without a defined process or when “guestimated” without proper analysis.

So, there’s a lot of wasteful activity going on in the office

Absolutely. What’s really dangerous is that it’s often difficult to see and the effects difficult to measure. Additionally these wastes add significantly to the cost base but also affect cash flow and the overall delivery performance of the business. I expect it’s time for companies in all sectors, not just manufacturing, to get with the “lean” revolution and reduce waste and improve efficiency in their office environment!