Imagine a project that’s budgeted for 100 days. In reality, more than fifty of those will probably cover work in the office. Without clearly defined operational procedures, it can easily end up taking a lot longer – people wasting time looking for information and making poor decisions when they can’t find it. Leaving this situation unaddressed can easily wipe out the benefits of an expertly executed lean re-organization on the shop floor! Not to mention the negative impact delays have on customer satisfaction. So how do we improve things?

Take down the barriers
Documentation sitting in queues waiting for approval or review is certainly likely to be one of the worst. For issues like this one, the shop floor term, takt time, is also applicable. Tracking the time it takes to turn around an engineering change order is just as relevant as tracking custom assemblies. Experience tells us that time needed to complete an activity will expand to meet the time available, so it’s important not to give tasks the opportunity to stall. Taking out administrative barriers to getting tasks completed can quickly speed up processes and allow the reallocation of previously wasted effort.

Stop doing too much
Lots of businesses are doing more than is necessary to get the job done, draining resources by sucking in people’s time to activities that deliver no value. It seems strange, but examples abound. Think about the irritating ‘reply all’ e-mails that clog your inbox, or multiple copies of ‘FYI’ reports that await commentary and consolidation to little real effect. They eat up time by distracting people’s attention, and by encouraging people to wait for responses. Addressing this kind of office culture and streamlining processes can have a major impact on the speed with which tasks can be processed.

Shop floor issues also hide in the office
Think office logistics. Time spent moving materials around without tangible added value to the end product is bad for business. This might not sound relevant for the office, but information is also a material. Unnecessarily complex approval processes where information goes back and forth – with waiting times in between – are a good example. Inventory concepts can also be applied, lists of tasks to be completed and clogged in-boxes acting as stores of work waiting to be processed. Not managing them and the information they hide effectively can be a real anchor on progress.

Add to these the concepts of re-work (having to re-do invoices with the correct information etc.) and inefficient resource allocation (effort without result, as seen in meetings without firm conclusions), and you’ll see that the administrative force of the business can probably lose some weight.

Satisfied customers also help you slim down
Customer satisfaction is no longer the end objective – businesses want to build loyalty. After all, anything less than a delighted customer can lead to queries, complaints or returns. The lean office can play a big role here, efficient operations reducing the risk of customer irritation at the details of an order not being realized as specified. The commitments made during the sales process need to be delivered on by everyone. And this is much easier with a well-designed system of workflows in place to make sure nothing goes missing.

Third parties should not be forgotten
In the same way that shop floor lean processes can encompass externally managed inventory and vendor portals, lean offices can include third parties who contribute information in the early phases of projects. Ensuring that smooth processes and efficient workflows don’t break down when externals are involved should be a major consideration when evaluating room for improvement. Effective cross-company collaboration and co-operation can make a big difference to the speed at which things happen.

Lean is a business-wide philosophy
As you can see, there’s plenty of scope to reduce lead times away from the shop floor. Don’t be afraid to take your lean principles to your administrative colleagues. If it doesn’t add value to the customer, they too can think seriously about why they’re doing it.