An Introduction to Lean Office

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Lean principles are already well established as playing an important role in boosting profits and eliminating waste during manufacturing – but why stop there?

Organisations are now rapidly realizing that many of the processes that are slowing down production and causing waste are administrative and are turning to lean to address this.

As one lean office expert, who works for TechHelp, explained: "Too often, we look at how to get things done better or faster in the office instead of examining what things we really ought to be doing."

Hard figures on how much of the administrative processes are classed as waste under the lean principle – those which provide no added value to the end user – are difficult to come by. Yet with some experts suggesting it could be 80 percent or higher, the area is clearly one which needs attention.

Designing a Lean Office

When Toyota identified the seven key areas of waste in its original lean system, these were targeted at manufacturing processes, but often these can be applied almost as easily within an office environment.

These seven factors are overproduction, waiting, transport, inappropriate processing, unnecessary inventory, unnecessary motion, defects and excess stock.

Looking at these within an office context, overproduction could relate to too much paperwork and too many approvals, and transport could be something as simple as having the space poorly laid out.


In order to decrease lead times these areas of waste must be identified and, much like if the lean principles were being applied to manufacturing, this is done through value stream mapping.

Value stream mapping allows for office processes to be viewed in their entirety, from the moment the customer places the order to when a product is shipped. The first step is choosing a 'product family', in this case some form of administrative action, and if products are classified correctly this will make the mapping process much simpler.

"Whatever the problem, it’s critical to have agreement with the customer and within the organization on just what that problem is prior to the start of mapping. Otherwise, it’s likely that mapping will fail to address the real issues," James P Womack, senior adviser to the Lean Enterprise Institute, writing for Manufacturing Engineering, explained.

When carrying out the mapping, it's important at least one person, or ideally a small team, walks the entire value stream to get an accurate picture, rather than one compiled by teams each experiencing a small snapshot of the stream. Data about times and where backlogs occur is also important.

Only once this is completed can work begin on the future state map, applying the lean principles to eliminate wasteful processes such as unnecessary approvals and paperwork.

Benefits of a Lean Office

Applying lean principles to an office environment can have significant benefits in improving work flow process, as a case study of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by the Lean Enterprise Institute shows.

The principles were applied at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) near Boston, which has 30 members of staff and is responsible for flight safety in Massachusetts – a highly regulated sector which requires large amounts of paperwork and approvals.

However, after using value stream mapping, the FSDO was able to reduce the time it needed to process a number of certification documents by 51 percent.

"The value stream maps really were a key to helping the team members look together at the whole process to see where they wanted to focus attention," Cher Nicholas, the FAA Quality Assurance Staff consultant who conducted the lean training, explained.

Previously, the office stored its essential information in two binders within its library, which meant documents were not always updated in both folders, causing time delays, and new correspondence was not even kept in the same area.

Now, the FSDO uses a single, easily labelled colour coordinated binder system, which is much easier to use and is checked annually to remove any old and redundant documents.