Lean for Desk Jockeys

So you’ve been asked to be a Lean agent in your department…and you’ve eagerly taken on the challenge, only to find out that Lean principles are easily applied to the discreet manufacturing industry in which the tangible product is produced along a value chain from raw material through several value-adding processing steps until it reaches the customer.

But you work in an office environment…you and your colleagues are number crunchers and information processors, and you don’t even get to even see the end customer let alone the product or service. So off-the-shelf Lean tools need to be interpreted in order to make your department’s processes more efficient, less wasteful and of a higher quality.

There are a number of characteristics of information work that present a few challenges when trying to apply lean processes:

  1. Instantiation: Information can be instantiated or duplicated with almost no marginal cost or effort, unlike services or products in which there is normally a direct variable cost.
  2. Abstraction of cost and effort – This seems contrary to the above statement, but information processing does cost in terms of hardware, software, configuration, maintenance and so forth but most of these are behind-the-scenes as far as the information worker is concerned and easily taken for granted or ignored.
  3. Immediacy: it takes almost no time to perform calculations, transfer data or run reports by a computer system nowadays. These are most certainly value adding steps where the time critical factor is really the information worker’s ability to set up the starting conditions before the buttons are clicked to perform the operation. So the focus of the value addition is not on the information processing step itself but rather on the ‘operator’ who needs to assimilate data, perform configuration steps and interpret results.


With the above nuances as background, here are a few ideas on how to apply the Lean concept of the 8 wastes (also known by the acronym TIMWOODI) to information processing.

Transportation

In the discrete manufacturing industry this normally refers to the transportation of raw materials between processing stations (note – this is not the movement of workers around the factory floor, it’s the movement of materials). For information workers it is most likely files or data that is being moved around between end user devices, servers, mailboxes etc. Examples of this may include:
  • Emailing a document-based form that is meant to capture data from various players in the organization and then consolidating responses as they come in. [The form is transported]. The lean opportunity is having one instance of the file on a shared drive/cloud and pointing respondents to it, or using a web-based form & capturing responses directly into a database.
  • Extracting data from a database into a spreadsheet, mailing the data to another party who then transforms the data into a different form & posts to individual recipients. [The data is transported]. Where possible, providing end users with templates that extract required data from the database directly and transform the data into meaningful reports.

Inventory

For information workers inventory may take the form of data storage in multiple databases/spreadsheets and documents, and possibly across multiple devices (sometimes for redundancy). But the problem is that given the small incremental cost of storing data, and our natural aversion to loss, we commonly store everything and end up with multiple versions of documents and data spread far and wide between individual computers, disks and servers that takes time and effort to filter through. Rules and business processes have to be established and followed to ensure that data and information is stored, managed and controlled in a fashion that allows for efficient access.

Motion

You might argue that you’re a desk jockey and the only motion you need to do at the office is to get to the coffee machine or restroom! But this isn’t motion required for information processing, in this context it takes the form of the number of clicks, the different applications that need to be invoked to get something done, the mouse travel across the menus and screens, and even screen switches to get to your active windows. Besides software redesign (which typically takes the order of months), low cost solutions may include using multiple displays, touch screen monitors and employing voice recognition.

Waiting

In the manufacturing industry this occurs when more processing is done on the product that renders its properties of no more value to the end customer. In the information space this happens all too easily: examples include mapping or moving data across multiple systems that each may apply redundant filtering, validation, transformation and translation. This means that the information worker would need to trace multiple systems and their configuration in order to ascertain how a piece of data got transformed into the information that is ultimately presented.

Overprocessing

In the manufacturing industry this occurs when more processing is done on the product that renders its properties of no more value to the end customer. In the information space this happens all too easily: examples include mapping or moving data across multiple systems that each may apply redundant filtering, validation, transformation and translation. This means that the information worker would need to trace multiple systems and their configuration in order to ascertain how a piece of data got transformed into the information that is ultimately presented.

Overproduction

We wouldn’t have an entire industry of IT support if it weren’t for software bugs, enhancements and upgrades. And all too often in the information worker’s daily life is he/she is exposed to missing, incorrect or even duplicate data that would require spending tremendous effort in cleaning up. Since this one is fairly obvious in its manifestation, it won’t be necessary to elaborate in the context of information processing.

Defects

We wouldn’t have an entire industry of IT support if it weren’t for software bugs, enhancements and upgrades. And all too often in the information worker’s daily life is he/she is exposed to missing, incorrect or even duplicate data that would require spending tremendous effort in cleaning up. Since this one is fairly obvious in its manifestation, it won’t be necessary to elaborate in the context of information processing.

Intellect

Most modern lean texts quote this as the 8th waste, which is a misuse of the information worker’s intellect. This means that instead of spending their time and energy on applying their training and expertise in a specialized field to a business problem or opportunity, the inefficient system requires that they perform a disproportionate amount of time on mundane or generic tasks like data entry, input validation or simple number crunching. These are items that could and should be automated or even outsourced, making relevant information readily available for the information worker to perform their specific value add.