Posted by Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth   |  

The excellence revolution was around for more than decade before companies began to realize that the same principles and practices that made the shop floor faster, better, and more profitable applied to non-production/office functions—everywhere: hospitals, banks, retail stores, airports, at-home services, schools and colleges, and government agencies.

The knowledge content of workplace visuality is so universally relevant, it relates to all work venues. If work is done there, implementing visual principles and practices will make as dramatic a positive impact as they do on the manufacturing floor.

I call the method I developed for improving office productivity and cultural alignment: The Visual-Lean® Office. Similar to the Visual Machine® discussed in The Visual Thinker e-Newsletter (January 14, 2015—The Visual Machine: Let The Machine Speak), office deployment marches through the methods and outcomes of the first six of the ten doorways: visual order, visual standards, visual displays, visual metrics-visual problem solving, visual controls/pull systems, and visual guarantees/mistake-proofing. And with great success. Our Australian affiliate, Brian Levitan, reports that three months after teaching visual thinking principles and tools to an engineering group in Sydney, they achieved a 34% increase in departmental productivity—by their own measure. Their focus: Attack the motion called interruptions. Such results from a visual-lean office are not rare.

Visual thinking principles for the office are identical to those followed by the shop floor. The implementation pathway, however, is considerably different—due to the difference in culture between office and production settings. Consider the following.

  1. Office people are used to groups. People in offices are used to getting their work done in a group context, not in isolation from others. In offices, working in groups, if not in teams, is the norm. This may not mean groups work well, but there is a built in understanding that office outputs are owned by the department—not by the individual. Unlike a production cell, it is difficult for the Finance Department, for example, to separate a financial report into its discrete components, the way one can with an assembly. Many contribute to a report’s various sections and its ownership becomes a joint event.
  2. Office people own their work. People in offices feel a greater sense of ownership over their jobs. They understand how pieces fit and recognize what they contribute to the whole much more readily than production personnel. And because individuals identify more closely with their work outputs, they often feel greater pride in quality results and greater distress if their work is not up to standard. I have often reckoned that the scope and focus of office employees are more closely aligned to those of a good manager, with a strong understanding of the big picture and the purpose of their work.
  3. Office people are more self-supervising. Office personnel are used to more self-regulation. While some may require some guidance on tasks, few need help on skills. The educational sequence that lands me an office job is, more often than not, similar to (if not identical with) that for other office personnel. For the most part, office personnel know what their job is and how to do it. This renders micromanagement particularly grating. “Tell me what to do—not how to do it!” is a more welcomed norm.
  4. Office people protect their territory. Who hasn’t heard offices called “small kingdoms?”—usually said with some venom. “Don’t touch my desk” is my own constant instruction around the office. I have a huge sense of ownership over those piles and respect that need in others. Office personnel are more protective of their work domains than production employees. Messing with their value fields, their desks, feels more an invasion of their purse or briefcase. Similarly, sharing one’s desk with another is not widely practiced in the office community (not yet anyway)—whereas workbenches are commonly shared and they are rarely “owned.”

Because of these considerations, we start to implement workplace visuality in a manner that is substantially different from the shop floor start-up approach. Although the telling details are beyond the scope of this article, let me clue you in on a few of the most significant changes in our approach in offices.

  1. Since time is the inventory of the office, we typically launch improvements to the value stream (process improvement) in close sequence (or even in parallel) with the visual part of the conversion—lean and visual in close tandem.
  2. We establish standards of office visuality early and use them to drive the office’s visual-lean initiative.
  3. We never deviate from our commitment to create I-driven visuality.
  4. We never lower our expectations that office personnel will invent remarkable never-seen-before visual solutions.
  5. We ALWAYS present and discuss visual solutions from manufacturing since the visual principles are the same and often more vividly captured than in visual solutions from office.

Office personnel are as eager as anyone to reduce the day-to-day struggle—as eager as other employees to self-solve their problems. Properly trained in visual workplace knowledge and know-how, office employees can and do become powerful visual thinkers, contributing robust visual solutions to the motion caused by information deficits in the everyday work of the office. They pursue and find robust, innovative ways to let the office place speak.