The Lean Office

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All of us strive to shed fat and become lean. The same holds good for the organization you are running or working in, except for “the bottom line”. This is the only area where owners or CEOs are concerned if it gets lean. The fatness of the bottom line is inversely proportional to the resources utilized while producing goods.

Because of the competitive environment, the global marketplace is driving every company to achieve better financial results. In this environment competition may surface not just in local surroundings but also from any corner of the world.

The world over, organizations are driving themselves to get lean. When I say “organization” they relate not just to manufacturing ones but also the service sectors. Take for instance insurance and banking or transport and tourism. The current banking sector is trying to shed its fat in various areas and new banks are starting lean. Organizations that are following “lean” practices across the enterprise have been able to get higher asset velocity, enhanced productivity and improved customer service, resulting in a fat balance sheet.

The challenge is heightened by the Internet, along with all the logistics capabilities of the world today. Now you can buy anything from anywhere in the world. American companies are buying services from India, and I take advantage of buying marginally damaged books from Amazon at half or a quarter of the published rates. I find it cheaper to order my business cards using the Internet, selecting a card from templates and getting delivery at my doorstep in 8 to 10 working days.

Let me first provide a bit of history of “lean” and who can implement it. The terminology came into existence way back in 1970 with the onslaught of Japanese products in the auto and electronic industry. In the 1980s this was standard practice to improve production. In the next decade the emphasis was on sustaining after survival. We in India probably missed all the excitement and the burnouts in the 70s and 80s because of the license permit raj. Even today it is still applied to manufacturing, but rarely to the office and back office environment.

With every new concept there are misgivings, and lean is no exception. It starts with cutting down the work force or supplies without proper planning. Owners and top management look at it as a cost cutting program and order implementers to do so. Some also adopt it for quality. It is applied only to continuous process and not in R and D. Toyota has successfully implemented these practices to reduce cycle time to develop and introduce in the market new products.

“Lean” like quality is a culture change program. It will not produce results if some one just says: let’s get a consultant and show our people that this is how it is to be done. In other words, “lean” is not just reducing the head count or cost reduction but increasing the output from the same number of people and reducing process cost by improve productivity. No doubt this will automatically save lots of money but more importantly it will save time which is wasted in many processes and cannot be regained – EVER.

All of us, right from the president to the peon, have 24 hours every day at our disposal. Managing these 24 hours is not a question of noting down appointments or compiling a complete to-do-list. Those who can make use of the same 24 hours effectively to be more productive are ahead of others. “Lean” practices teach us how to differentiate between productive and unproductive processes, and then it is up to us to cut down those unproductive processes. And this is true for any one of us, as an individual or organization.

Now, how do you apply this to office productivity? There is an elaborate procedure and a need to look into various aspects. It is not possible to cover the entire subject in this newsletter but I would like to clear some doubts which you may have. There is a difference between an automated office and a lean office. The automated office will have much office equipment but unless this is geared to streamlining process these are just machines. They need to be used judiciously.

It is essential to understand the purpose of the office for any organization. An office comes into existence to handle information for an organization. The organization could relate to a self-employed individual (commission agent, trader etc.), a professional (doctor, lawyer consulting engineer etc.) or a small/medium/large organization. Depending on the size and complexity of business there are a number of people who handle information in any organization.

New slogans like “Right Information at the Right Time” or “24×7” are useful only if the organization puts “lean” into practice in offices and not just in manufacturing. You may have observed that finding/getting information from any person in any of those “slogan” organizations is still a Herculean task. But just don’t laugh at them. Turn around and look at your own office – from outside. 9 out of 10 of you will observe that you are not any different. You may not be searching for paper but may be for the e-mail or file you have written yesterday.

If you want to get going towards a “lean office” go ahead and start it now. Just remember, to put “lean” into practice, the process is a marathon race and not a 100-meter sprint.

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