Posted by: Knightbird | October 7, 2011

Going to the Gemba in a Lean Office

I sit on the board of a manufacturing business, and have first hand experience with observing the lean conversion there. The results were astounding. The 5S event and process mapping led to a halt in management requests for additional space. Attempting to reduce inventory and adopt more of a just in time policy freed up considerable workspace. Aisles were clear and items were labeled with a home address. Shadow boards reflected where tools belonged when returned to that home address. Life was visibly better. I am not sure that it was as much of a cultural change as has occurred elsewhere though. But results occurred.

Looking at an office environment is more difficult, but there are enough similarities to make lean incredibly effective in an office. The value streams in an office are not generally visible and defects can remain hidden. There is no scrap left behind and defective work often remains undiscovered. In Finance, for example, an audit does not include a 100% sample. Defects such as overpayments are seldom discovered because the party that is overpaid is usually happy. Of course, lack of payment usually comes with an immediate complaint from the payee. Lost documents are generally not looked upon as a defect, just as a part of doing business. And walking to the copier for fax machine is generally looked upon as an opportunity for socializing and getting a cup of coffee.

Still, Gemba walks in an office environment are incredibly productive when you know what you are looking for. Look at storage closets. They are probably packed with “stuff.” Supply closets and janitorial closets undoubtedly contain lots of excess inventory. Waste baskets are full. There is likely one copier for many employees and walking to a fax machine is a requirement. Employees are typically walking around looking for signatures of approval. When you watch at a copy machine, multiple copies are made of everything and sent to everybody. Try to find a stapler near the copy machine. It’s likely gone. Need a pair of scissors—you will probably be looking in a lot of places before you find one. How about cups for the coffee pot—there are probably either way too many cups available or none.

And look at the automation through software. Shared drives are undoubtedly cluttered. And if bad processes are automated, they still remain bad processes. The mistakes are just made faster.

Gemba walks are for a purpose. Initially you are learning to see. The office looks normal to you. But as you start Kaizen, you begin to see the ENORMOUS volumes of waste in your office. You hear from your employees, “But that’s the way we’ve always done things.” You find the phenomenal workarounds by employees who truly want to be productive and get their work done. You find the protective nature that these employees adopt in order to make sure that people don’t screw up their workaround. All of this and more become visible as you learn to see. I commend office Gemba walks for those who are only implementing Lean in healthcare or manufacturing. IT WORKS. I AM SHOUTING IT OUT TO THE WORLD AS AN EXECUTIVE WHO SEE’S IT WORK EVERY DAY.


  1. […] Going to the Gemba in a Lean Office – “Gemba walks are for a purpose. Initially you are learning to see. The office looks normal to you. But as you start Kaizen, you begin to see the enormous volumes of waste in your office.” […]

  2. Dear Patrick,

    That response you have noted would be a typical result from a Gemba done erroneously. And it does cross the Respect for People principle because the Gemba was done without proper dissemination of the principles and tools of Lean before hand. This kind of approach will most certainly have a serious brush with numeruous employee’ TRUST issues. Please see the link from Jon Miller’s blog post.

    Worth noting the comment posted by Jamie Flinchbaugh as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: