Lean in an Office

Lean in an Office is different from Lean in Manufacturing

Lean has its roots in Manufacturing, so it follows that many consulting firms also have their roots in consulting for Manufacturing.

Most of these consulting firms have embraced lean in office and white-collar areas – I have no beef with that at all.

However, when talking about Lean in an office environment, some of the tools and techniques change in terms of their

application and benefit. But some consulting firms apply the tools and techniques the same way they would in a manufacturing environment – and that is a problem.

I’ll give you an example – the 5S principles.

5S is simply 5 Japanese (or English) words beginning with ‘S’ that are guiding principles for creating order and control in the organisation of your workspace and reducing waste like excessive motion.

Original Japanese English version High-Level Description
Seiri Sort Sort out all your equipment so you only have what you need
Seiton Set in order Arrange everything so you can get something quickly and easily
Seiso Shine Keep your workstation clean and safe
Seiketsu Standardise Standardise workstations so people are familiar with the layout
Sitsuke Sustain Audit workstations and keep it the way it should be


These principles, when applied correctly are transformative in a manufacturing environment (or similar).

Poorly set up and maintained manufacturing environments can be potentially life-threatening. Time spent looking for a particular tool can cause huge delays to the production line etc. It’s a big deal – and therefore, it’s one of the first things that often gets done when ‘lean’ comes to a plant.

But now we’re in an office and in walks your ‘lean consultant’ with heavy manufacturing experience but no understanding of how it differs in an office.

“Let’s 5S this workplace”.

And they set about red-tagging stuff not needed, cleaning away things, tidying desks, sorting out your paperclips and staplers, making every shiny.

And that’s nice – but it’s not transformational.

Of course, clean and tidy desks are beneficial, but the impact isn’t anything like it is on the manufacturing floor. An office worker with an untidy desk can still be highly productive (I can certainly relate to this!) but a manufacturing worker will not be productive with an untidy, cluttered and chaotic workstation.

So should we just bin the whole 5S technique in an office..?

Well, no.

The key thing here is to think about what it is that you make. What is the medium you work with?

In a manufacturing environment, this is perhaps metal, or wood or plastics etc. You’ll need machinery and tools to do your job.

In an office, the medium you work with is information or data. In this day and age, it’s still some paper, but mostly it’s little 1s and 0s – electronic data.

And that’s where 5S comes into its own in an office.

“Let’s 5S our data”.

How much time have you lost searching for a file? Or looking for the right template? Or finding that report from last month? Or looking up that policy? Or searching for your complaints procedure?

Even if it’s only minutes lost each day – multiply that by everyone who works for your company.

Trawling through your email folders or your file share system or just windows explorer to find the tools (information) you need to do your job.

It can be a huge waste of time – fixing this problem can be transformational.

So you see, 5S in an office is really a virtual activity. It’s mostly online, sorting, straightening, shining, standardising and sustaining your stored data it the point.

There are other Lean tools and techniques that change their application in an office environment too such as SMED and 8 wastes – but perhaps that’s another blog post/rant.

If you’re thinking of hiring consultants to help with your Lean transformation – make sure they are using the right tools for the job.

2 Responses

  1. Geno Johnston

    May 17, 2017 at 1:42 am

    Good article that sparked some thoughts that I would like to share. This article is in basic essence is absolutely correct, you cannot approach the office the same as a manufacturing floor. However, what is misleading is simply the misconceived idea that “Lean” is about the tools, it’s not, it’s about the people. There is much more than that, you will use many of the same tools in the office as the on the shop floor. The manner and method of using the tool must be consistent with the principle behind the tool, let me give you an example. As the article states using 5S, it will look much different in the office than the shop floor. But the returns from 5S in the office have proven to be many times more valuable than on the shop floor. Yes 5S your data, your files, your desk, the methods and frequency of meetings, even the coffee pot in the office. It all adds up to some very positive outcomes such as; efficiency increases, productivity improves, defects and delays decrease and the list go on. It is important to include the Office or the “Transactional World” when attempting to complete a full transformation. Otherwise it is only a partial transformation. Give it a try, with thinking of the “Principles” that lead to the tool, stay try to those, and the results will come. Also as an added bonus, you may be surprised the results that you will see in the “Manufacturing Side of the House” once you Lean Out your office processes. I look forward to reading more of your articles as they are very thought provoking and insightful.

    • Cameron Turner

      May 17, 2017 at 9:41 am

      Hi Geno,

      Thanks for your thoughts! I would just gently point out that the article never states or implies that ‘Lean’ is just about tools. The article simply talks about one tool and how it is used differently in different situations.

      I’d agree 100% that lean is not about tools, instead it’s a different way of thinking about processes and performance. Also agree completely that applying Lean in an office environment will have downstream benefits in the manufacturing side of the business (for those that have one).

      And finally, for best results, I’d wholly subscribe to the theory that a full Lean implementation across all business areas is always going to deliver a better result (done properly).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.