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What is a Lean Office?

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A "lean office" is the application of the "Lean" philosophy to front end processes. In the early 1990's, Toyota Manufacturing developed the concept of lean, identifying eight categories of process waste (or "muda"). They are: transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, defects, and mnemonics. According to the pioneers of the concept, a manufacturer can actually add value to products by eliminating waste in these processes. This breakthrough pervades today's manufacturing and is now starting to be found in places off the factory floor: namely, the office. 

Leading edge manufacturing companies began to recognize many similarities between their manufacturing lines and their offices. Both settings have processes and people producing work output. Most importantly, both have processes--which, left unrefined, become wasteful. 

The idea of a lean office is relatively new, and there are still varying perspectives on how it can be successfully achieved. Eliminating waste in an office is also arguably harder than on the manufacturing line, because productivity in an office is far less quantifiable. However, these six core principles remain tried and true. 

1. Value Stream Mapping (VSM) 

2. Standardization 

3. Flow 

4. Focus

5. Culture 

6. Alignment 

1. Value Stream mapping (VSM) is a critical tool for visualizing wasteful processes and steps that could be revised in order to eliminate waste. Usually, there are three types of value stream maps: (1) current state, (2) ideal state, and (3) future state. The third, "future state," is a compromise between the current state and the ideal state, and it acts to help you take the necessary steps to achieve waste reduction. It's critical to prepare for value stream mapping by identifying who your employees are, what your company's goals are, and what your company hopes to gain from the operation. Otherwise, the valuestream map is simply an abstraction.

2. Standardization is the act of simplifying and streamlining processes; working out the variability. Every employee should follow each of their own tasks consistently, such that the processes become reflexive and other members of the team can rely on a uniform product. This can cut down the process time by 10-15%. The implementation of process change must work with the company's character and its employees. Some process changes may be so disagreeable to employees the change can actually hinder efficiency. 

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3. Before standardizing a process, make sure it flows. That is to say, make sure the process is simple and repeatable. Flow may also refer to an office's physical arrangement. Some call this boundarylessness, which is creating physical space that compliments a process and its participants. This includes making an office space simple and intuitive, as well as eliminating barriers of communication between members of a team. 

4. Don't take on too much at once. Instead, focus on key processes that directly affect your company's ability to deliver value to customers. Only after these key processes are refined and perfected should you fix other, more ancillary operations. 

5. Culture is the most important element of a lean office. Fostering a "lean culture" ensures lean processes are perpetuated--and improved--over time. It is also is a sign of depth and sophistication of your processes and your employees understanding of them. But establishing a lean culture is the most difficult and takes the most time. A good lean culture is implemented slowly, with a premium placed on relationships and an overall understanding of company values. The mark of a successful lean office--and a lean anything, for that matter--is the depth of lean culture.

6. In order to foster a good lean culture, changes in company process must align with company goals and should be flexible based on employee feedback. The irony of lean implementation is that it can actually be a wasteful process itself--or worse, it can create a more wasteful process. If you start with your company and your employees, the rest should follow.