A Publication of WTVP

It’s not uncommon for us to encounter this scenario when we assess the capabilities of a manufacturing company:

Overall production is running at peak efficiency. The plant is clean, orderly and safe. Goods flow fluidly throughout the facility with minimal travel distance. Workers are energized, engaged and constantly busy.

Walk into the “front office,” however, and you see a different picture. An order has been sitting in a purchaser’s in-box for four days with no action. Several steps are required to authorize bill of material and the production process to begin. Clutter is everywhere.

As anyone who’s spent time in an office setting can attest—inefficiency is often the scourge of the typical “white-collar” environment. By some estimates, administrative tasks make up to 80 percent of a manufacturer’s cost of doing business. Eliminating wastefulness from administrative and office functions can also boost profit margins and help transform a company into a total lean—and highly efficient—operation.

Lean remains a growing and popular cost-containment and productivity- building tool for U.S. businesses. And with good reason: the methodologies, if deployed correctly, are a potent way to trim waste, manage inventory, bolster shop floor efficiency and increase profit margins. While the gains on the shop floor are often easy to quantify, many in manufacturing still view lean as just that: shop floor tools only.

While the subject areas of lean manufacturing and lean office are different, the underlying fundamentals are similar. “In the shop, we talk about inventory. In the office, it’s the paper, the data flow, the information,” says Eric Danielson, an IMEC senior lean specialist. “We track it the same way. We look at each process and the time it takes to do each one of the steps. When something is sitting around, it’s not adding value.”

Danielson adds that one area in which companies see immediate results is with custom orders. “When a company needs to get quotes, designs, schedules and budgets together on a custom project, there tends to be more down time,” he notes. “Using lean principles in the office can help tighten up those systems.”

For all of their potential value, however, lean initiatives are not without challenges. Companies often report resistance from employees. And, as with any cultural change, implementation is an ongoing process—results won’t happen overnight. To make the jump to lean, management support is critical. There also must be a company-wide understanding of the process—what lean is, why it’s needed and precisely how it will work—along with detailed steps for implementation and specific ways to measure progress. IBI