‘Lean’ techniques move from the factory floor into offices
The lean-operations techniques that wrung untold hundreds of thousand of dollars from the cost structures of manufacturing companies in northern Nevada now find a growing place in the front office as well.
Experts who’ve spent more than a decade analyzing the flow of metal parts through the region’s factories instead are watching how many times a piece of paper is touched and how many computer files office workers click through to find the spreadsheet they need.
Even folks who consider their work so creative that it defies lean operations are finding that they can streamline processes and save money.
“It’s definitely gaining some traction,” says Gary Conner, a project manager with Nevada Industry Excellence in Reno.
Nevada Industry Excellence, which made its name in the past 18 years working with manufacturers, mining companies and construction outfits, these days is running a steady calendar of Lean Office workshops to train northern Nevada administrators to make their offices more efficient.
A couple of factors have driven the focus on Lean Office, says Conner:
First, not surprising, is the lingering effect of the recession and the demand on office workers to do more with less.
Second, as companies have gotten ever more efficient out on their shop floors, executives have increasingly noticed that things are getting hung up in purchasing, accounts receivable, human resources and other front-office departments.
“A dollar saved in the office might save $10 out in the shop,” says Conner. “Little things can make a big difference.”
Just like the work that Lean Manufacturing experts undertake on the shop floor, Lean Office teams look at every step undertaken in an office, identify the steps that add value and eliminate the rest.
Generally, Conner says, the work begins with a team of four who watch carefully — even videotaping — as office workers complete their daily tasks.
The goal: “If you pick it up, finish it,” says Conner.
Employees in a Lean Office, he says, should be able to open any file they need within 30 seconds. Another measurement: It should take no more than three clicks of a computer mouse to get to a file.
Along with watching workflow carefully to strip out unnecessary steps and improve the flow of paperwork, Lean Office experts teach what Japanese writers have dubbed “The 5 S” approach to streamlining office functions:
Sort: Store or toss everything on your desk that’s not necessary for your work.
Straighten: Assign locations for everything from papers to staplers so that they’re in the right place
Shine: Put stuff away at night so you can begin the next day organized, and keep the office clean.
Standardize: Ensure that everyone follows the same practices, and make sure that work environment is conducive to productivity.
Sustain: Train everyone, make sure the rules are followed, and develop a workplace culture that’s pleasant and punctual.
But Conner says development of a Lean Office depends on more than fast-filing goals and posters that list the 5 S approach.
“I spend at least 30 percent of my time being a psychologist,” he says.
A key element: Determining who in an organization is likely to lead the effort, and keeping control away from the nay-sayers.
“If you give them control, they’ll kill it,” says Conner, who has written six books about Lean techniques and organizational change.
Some workers may fear that they’ll lose their as Lean Office practices are implemented.
“Lean is never about shrinking your organization,” Conner says.
Instead, whether the techniques are put into place on a factory floor or an executive suite, Lean gives organization a competitive edge that allows them to win more business, and handle it more profitably, he says.
Despite ongoing difficulties, Northern Nevada’s office real estate market will endure, experts predict
IGT’s decision to list its 1.2 million sq. ft. campus for lease this month and the recent $3.8 million sale of Harley Davidson’s 3-story financial services building in Carson City are the latest examples of companies no longer needing larger-scale office properties to maintain productivity levels and meet customer needs.