The lean office is an appealing concept, but even for companies experienced in slimming down other parts of the operation, it can be one that’s hard to realize. Where to start?

Get a grip on your processes
Going lean successfully demands careful research and planning, defining business processes from start to finish. Careful analysis is then required to identify where bottlenecks or mistakes are causing problems.

As with the shop floor, a Kaizen event is a powerful tool for getting the answers to the new questions you’ll have about your operation. How many steps are involved in completing a quotation? How do we actually deal with hiring a draughtsman? Mapping out your organizational process flows is the foundation for your successful lean implementation.

Dive into the details
When you’ve reviewed and mapped out how the current operation works, get specific. Break down departments into activities. Be critical, asking how every task that every person carries out adds value to the business. Be thorough in determining who is involved with documents and processes at what points, and whether or not their contributions are genuinely valuable.

Don’t ignore the physical environment
It could well make sense to move objects and/or people around to facilitate better communication and simpler decision-making processes. Although e-mail is undoubtedly valuable, face to face explanation and instruction tends to get things done quicker. If you can set things up to makes this easier, do so.

Get the right software on board
Automating tedious, time consuming manual processes with an enterprise application can free up a lot of capacity for more valuable activities. Based on threshold values, systems can alert individuals to take necessary action, enabling businesses to be proactive in dealing with potentially troublesome situations.

Depending on the functionality available, it may also be able to give third parties direct access, allowing them to respond efficiently to ongoing processes that involve them. Workflow functionality can also streamline tasks, automating the movement of work along the chain and fostering effective co-operation between colleagues regardless of their physical location.

Keep track of the results
The process can also be strengthened by the use of performance metrics, creating quantifiable measurements to monitor and improve the effectiveness of both the people and processes in the system. Fluctuations in those metrics can indicate that processes are not being followed, or that new processes need to be implemented to accommodate changes in your business. They also make it easier to compare performance to industry standards, giving management an idea of further room for improvement.

The measures you choose will depend on the insight into your administrative processes that you want to get. How do you define your value stream? What is the product or service created by your back office activities?

If you focus on the process of creating quotations, you can think of the final document as your product. It’s then possible to define and measure the stages on route, and identify where efficiencies can be realized. As mentioned earlier, concepts like ‘pitch’ and ‘takt time’ can also be useful diagnostics in the office. Be creative in their application and you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve!