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Applying Lean Office in a Disruptive Time

By Sergio Fernández, Grup Vilar Riba

We are in a disruptive moment. This period constitutes an unprecedented challenge, but it must also be a period of opportunities to improve and create more robust and agile processes in our companies.

During the Second World War, and after the fall of France in 1940, the US government developed a programme to make industries more productive. Four men undertook to carry it out. When the war ended, they went to Japan with the idea of helping companies to rebuild the country. This was the origin of Lean. Lean Office is the methodology that, applying continuous improvement to our administrative work, identifies and eliminates “Muda” in our processes to achieve maximum customer satisfaction with minimum costs and reduce delivery times as much as possible. “Muda” is a lean concept which means wastefulness and defines all the processes or products which are not adding any value to the customer.

But Lean is also a methodology that helps us to reduce impacts in adverse moments. In February 1997, a fire destroyed the plant of Toyota’s most trusted suppliers. Toyota’s policy now requires supplying from different geographic locations, but, at that time, 99% of production came out of this plant.

So, in 1997 there was no other supplier who could manufacture those parts in less than four months and Toyota was facing the devastating decision to stop all assembling plants. Toyota had been working with Lean for many years, so they were able to coordinate more than 200 companies and develop new solutions, making them able to reopen all the plants in only a few days.

A real Lean journey takes years, but once we have started it, we will be able to see not only a reduction in costs, but a way to operational excellence. Our workers will be committed to the fact that the improvement is infinite (if we are not able to detect Muda, something is wrong!) and we will strive to find the true cause to propose the correct solution. Everyone will work in the same way and it will allow us to be more agile and adapt better.

You must consider that, in our companies, 80% of our business administration processes are Muda.

So, how does one start with Lean Office to avoid Muda? There are five simple steps you can begin with:

1. Change your mindset

To become lean requires you to change your mindset. You must learn to detect waste through “fresh eyes”, continuously increasing your awareness of what constitutes waste (non-value-added) and working to eliminate it.

At an organisational level, we need a disruption. According to John Kotter´s model for leading change, the first step is to create the “sense of urgency”. The good news is that in a disruptive period like this, the sense of urgency is already tangible, the change seems to be no longer optional.

2. Create a team, identify Muda, and start easy

The second step is to create a team and train them. Collect some improvement ideas and be practical. Choose one or two projects and use some basic lean tools to detect Muda in the workflow. For example, Value Stream Mapping (VSM) helps you to visualise the workflow and to detect them easily.

At this stage, great Japanese experts in Lean, called senseis, (yes! a kind of master like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid) can spend hours observing, detecting Muda, and learning about the workflow. In office environments, we will detect Muda such as endless emails sent with copies to multiple people, disorder, tasks awaiting resolution, unproductive meetings, ineffcient document management, inopportune calls, duplicate or repeated jobs, lack of control of queries or claims, defective or poorly performed work that must be repeated, use of inappropriate software, open projects, emails waiting to be read, creating reports, etc.

3. Implement improvements in your flow

The next step is to analyse and define tasks in order to reduce or avoid Muda. You can start using some basic lean tools depending on the problem or workflow: kaizen, 5S, JIT, Andon, Poka Yoke, Kanban, Hoshin Kanri, etc.

Perhaps the first, and most widely used in administrative environments, is the application of 5S. A disorganised office is an ineffcient office. The 5S is the tool that allows you, in five simple steps, to organise and set work standards in the office. Others will allow us to improve the flow of processes (of a query, of a project, of a billing or claim process) such as the Kanban, or will help us in solving problems as a team, such as the A3. Once the tasks are completed, collect data, and compare results using indicators.

4. Continue with the improvements and involve more people

Once we have obtained our first victory, it is time to recruit some more people. “Spread the word” in your company, showing results with indicators and visual information. Communication of results is essential, so don’t underestimate the value of a mini marketing campaign. Enable people to see and track the results of their impact and recognise their success. Then, plan and program new improvement projects.

5. Check, review, and maintain

The last part is probably one of the hardest: maintain. Standardisation will help us to eliminate errors and avoid them occurring again. It is surprising to see how in many companies, even today, the same job or task can be done differently by each of the operators who participate in it. Be careful at this stage and check regularly, but maintenance doesn´t mean you can’t be flexible to adapt if there are any changes (and changes always occur).

In 2020, the need to change, to adapt, is crucial.

Lean companies are continuously searching for Muda, improving results, and raising the satisfaction of customers over their requirements. This is not the first and will not be the last adverse scenario we face. It is time to embrace lean principles, creating robust and agile organisations capable of reducing impact, surviving, and flourishing.


Sergio Fernández Casado

Sergio Fernández Casado

GGI member firm
Grup Vilar Riba
Advisory, Auditing & Accounting, Corporate Finance, Fiduciary & Estate Planning, Law Firm Services, Tax
Barcelona, Puigcerdà, Vic, Spain
T: +34 93 883 32 12
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W: vilarriba.com


Published: GGI Insider, No. 107, May 2020 l Photo: Akarawut - stock.adobe.com

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