Thinking about visual management in an office setting requires consideration of the work type, just like the factory. Unfortunately, few companies spend any time at all designing office work utilizing the best practices learned in the factory. Read my previous post on this here. In a factory environment, there are many build models. Some create thousands of a single product every day (high volume repetitive), others might configure products to a particular customer order (configure to order), while others might make every unit custom for unique requirements (engineer to order or job shop). The office is really no different. We might simplify office work into a few general models which map to common operations types in the factory.
- Repetitive / high volume / daily – Processes like accounts payable and order support probably feature a high volume of repetitive work on a daily basis. Use the same Lean practices you would use for a production line on these processes
- Structured / triggered activities – These are highly structured processes which are triggered by an easily defined circumstance. They might occur many times a day or once per month. An example might be many elements of the monthly close process in accounting. For these, work can be optimized like on a production line but the measures and management will be different. This might be more similar to a flex line where more variety of work is seen but there is still ample opportunity to optimize
- Semi-structured support activities – This category picks up all of those short processes which have a high degree of variety which is a challenge to document in detail. These processes are supported by people who are considered expert in them based on supporting the activities over some period of time. Many of these can improved and moved into the structured category. The work design can be thought of as similar to a job shop and some of these approaches can be used to guide improvement.
- Unstructured activities – There are a variety of activities which have very little structure and must be supported by high trained staff. Examples might include legal support. Contrary to the opinions of many involved in these processes, there tends to be substantial opportunity to improve these processes, often using engineer to order principles (on a vastly simpler scale)
So why is it hard to see any of these models, except for maybe the first one? Back office organizations which have not been thoughtfully designed are typically a confused mess. To use the factory analogy, you have repetitive work that should be on a production line co mingled with unstructured work and every single person is acting like an independent plant scheduler, prioritizing individual items as they see fit. There is no production schedule, no quantitative goal, and no way to easily know if the most important objectives have been met for the day.
In my next post, I will address specific practices for repetitive office work, the easiest variety.