Contributed Column

All About IT

by John Burton, NPI

Go with the flow to increase office productivity

Office workers can benefit by paying attention to their manufacturing counterparts when it comes to examining workflow to improve operations and efficiencies. The manufacturing world calls this “Lean” thinking and, for knowledge workers, this starts with an analysis of the paper or electronic files that flow through the office. Lean thinking focuses on the critical tasks that add value to the work product. The goal is to identify waste that saps throughput and profit.

Start by measuring the work flow. If you don’t measure the process, you can’t manage the process. –Vijay Desai, principal consultant, Desai Management Consulting

How much money does a company lose due to wasted effort and low productivity? 

Waste Example 1: A sales manager fails to allocate time to provide input on a project; as a result the project is delayed, which leads to lost revenue at a key trade show.

The Lean culture uses three terms from Japanese martial arts, adopted by Toyota to describe waste: Muda (waste), Mura (unevenness), and Muri (overburden).

Muda refers to wasted processes that don’t create extra value.

• Movement: transmitting information in the form of voicemail, electronic files, emails, or papers

• Inventory: overflowing or empty inboxes (physical and electronic) due to work coming and going too fast or too slow

• Defects: problems requiring a rework or additional draft

• Skills: poor task delegation and inadequate training

• Waiting: idle time when jobs, information, people, and equipment are not available or not in use

The way to squeeze waste out of the office is to continually identify unnecessary actions and construct more streamlined processes. The goal is to quicken the pace while improving the quality.

Mura is the variation and inconsistency in the quality and volume of work performed. When work is more consistent there is less stress on employees so everything flows with ease.

Waste Example 2: A work bubble causes the manager to push the department to meet monthly targets. A lack of focus earlier in the month creates an uneven workflow that generates even more waste later in the month.

Muri is excessive work created by a poor organizational structure. Lean focuses on planning processes to avoid excessive work and overproduction. Other systemic issues such as a lack of training, unclear or poorly defined work methods, incorrect or hard-to-use tools, and poor measures of performance contribute to Muri.

Waste example 3: An architect failed to schedule time to write specifications for a new building process. This delayed the work until a new spec was delivered, leading to lost revenue.

Experts recommend starting each day with a brief face-to-face team meeting using whiteboards to visualize the daily workflows. Immediate progress can be made when everyone sees the inefficiencies, thus self-identifying improved workflow strategies.

A well-written project implementation plan breaks complicated and/or long-term projects into simple, sequenced, discrete steps with clearly assigned responsibilities and interim due dates. Entering this information into the group calendar shows the total demand on the team’s time. Now they can identify capacity constraints in advance and adjust their commitments appropriately. The result is fewer crises, better allocation of resources, and lower stress for everyone.

In office environments there are often multiple customers. Getting everyone together to map the information flow can be enlightening and lead to significant elimination of wasted time that results in more streamlined processes. –Don Paul, Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center

Incorporating Lean principles into front office processes doesn’t have to start with a wholesale restructuring of the company. Consistently applying even the most fundamental of Lean principles will help teams become more productive and increase job satisfaction.

John Burton is president of NPI, a technology management company in South Burlington, www.npi.net.

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