Reducing NVA Office Work

    4 – Work & Family

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    Another good article in the WSJ that brings up lean concepts, without mentioning lean. This time, it's focused on overworked employees in areas like consulting and finance.

    A lot of times, it seems that “office lean” efforts are just as superficial as some factory lean efforts… we try 5S, we put in a kanban system, but we don't tackle the real structure of the work and the “Value Add.”

    Most of us know the term “muda”, which is Japanese for waste or “non-value-added” activity. Remember, for something to be “Value Added”, 1) the customer must be willing to pay for it, 2) it must change the product in some way and 3) it must be done right the first time. Anything else is muda and should be reduced or eliminated.

    A lesser-known, but related term is “muri”, which means overwork or overburden. In a repetitive assembly environment, it is relatively easy to make sure that you don't give more work to an associate than they can do in the given cycle time. For example, on a 45-second moving line, you don't want to give someone 60 seconds of work.

    It's harder, though, in an office environment. Our work is less repetitive and less standardized. How do you know if someone really has 50 hours of work a week? For one, work will expand to fill the available time (people make themselves look busy out of fear). But sometimes, “the cup runneth over” and we end up working evenings and weekends.

    Some companies, including those cited in the article (Alcan, Cummins, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Texas Instruments and International Business Machines), are looking to reduce this “muri”, which leads to burned out employees, such as the guy up working at 2 AM.

    What's admirable is that they companies are looking at reducing “muda” or non-value-added activities from the employees' weeks. Reducing muda gives more time to work on creating value, or at least getting the workweek down to something sustainable. To me, this is more at the core of “Lean Thinking” than just doing “Office 5S”.

    “While corporate efforts to streamline work aren't new, the latest moves are different in two ways. They are driven by employee dissatisfaction, not budget-cutting. And they have two purposes — not only increasing productivity, but improving work-life balance.””

    Why do you have to attack muda?

    “You can't create a policy that says, ‘No more overwork.' It's too deeply embedded” in how companies operate, Mr. Harrington says. Tackling it requires deeper change.

    Things done to identify and reduce muda, as stated in the article, include:

    • Identifying and cutting out redundant work
    • Setting up back-up personnel for tasks, to help level out workloads
    • Workteams identifying improvement opportunities on their own (kaizen)
    • Leadership asking employees what needs fixing
      • CEO Austin Ligon begins some monthly meetings by asking, “What are we doing that is stupid, unnecessary or doesn't make sense?” The question draws a laugh and gets employees engaged in improving their workplace, he says.
    • Identifying “why” things are done (for a customer or because the boss wants it?)

    There are more specific examples in the actual WSJ article.

    I hope you can use this for inspiration in your own office environment. What are the unnecessary meetings? What reports could people really do without? Are you asking your employees to do more than can realistically be accomplished in a normal workday or workweek?

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    Mark Graban
    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. We are dealing with this same issue at my company. We have certain parts of the company that work many long days to keep up. We are doing an office waste walk on Monday to take out many physical steps as well as redundant work that has crept into the daily lives of some of our customer service folks.

      Here is a quick example we instituted a few months ago; We have an system that sends certain reports out to large groups of people that then have at least one response to that larger group. If everyone in the group takes an average of 5 seconds to look (delete) the email, it adds up to a cumulative 13 working WEEKS of time in a year! We sent a message out to the group to ask them to respond if they ever use the report. We reduced about 90% of the cc list and will save about 150,000 emails a year. Muda is everywhere!

    2. Mark, I agree with the eventual focus on muri and muda, but wouldn’t you agree that a good 5S in the office environment is the best start. I feel it is often overlooked or thought of as too corny. In reality, I think it is the first building block for office teamwork and secondly to create the visual progress to rally around (ref. Broken Windows Syndrom in the book “Tipping Point”). My experience with Continuous Improvment and Lean is that it is a cultural change that requires sequential evolution starting with something simple yet potential powerful like 5S. Comments?

    3. I’m not opposed to Office 5S. When I’ve seen it done, it was:

      1) Done “to” engineers, rather than for them or with them.

      2) It didn’t seem focused on waste reduction or making lives easier

      3) It was the only “lean” thing that was done.

      So, I guess those same things apply to 5S anywhere. It has to be done WITH people and it has to make work easier for people and for teams.


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