Four Paths to Lean Office Productivity: Can the Just-In-Time Concept Work for You?

“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.” — Shigeo Shingo, Japanese industrial engineer.

Ever since Toyota invented lean manufacturing, much has been made of its application to all professions, including “desk” jobs. The lean philosophy boils down to this: cut anything in the work process that fails to add value to the end-user. The end-user may be a consumer, one’s supervisor, or the group in the organizational structure to which you deliver your final product.

Side note: Speaking of things that don’t add value to the end user, check out this short clip of how I learned the hard way that my newsletters weren’t hitting home, and what I did to fix it: Video – Eliminating Low Value Business Activities

A central tenet of lean is “Just In Time” or “JIT” production. Rather than guess your user’s future needs, you provide goods and services “just in time” as they’re needed. So instead of making 100 sandwiches every morning in your deli, and risk wasting product if nobody buys them all, you make sandwiches only as people order them. It works very well for Subway.

But can it work in the standard office? Yes, though not necessarily as well as in manufacturing. Let’s look at four ways JIT applies to the white collar segment of the workforce.

1. Recruiting. You may remember a time when headhunters contacted you occasionally, just to see if you might be interested in changing jobs when something interesting came along. Similarly, the HR divisions of companies you applied to might have told you, “We’ll keep your resume on file in case something comes up.” It was to their advantage to keep candidates on hold, so when someone said, “I need a good coder,” or, “The R&D section needs a new manager,” they could offer up resumes on the spot. This still happens, but in many fields HR starts looking for new people only when management tells them to. With online platforms like Upwork, they can find workers anywhere in the world, audition them with test projects, shed the ones who don’t measure up, and hire the best performers.

2. Equipment. Back in the typewriter/steno days, it made sense to order IBM Selectrics or steno pads in bulk. You knew that someone would use them eventually, even if they sat in storage for a year. No one would dare do this with office equipment today, due to the constant upgrades and lack of backward compatibility in some cases. Apple’s Macs, for example, used an entirely different OS than the Apple IIs (as some of us discovered to our chagrin). A Pentium might have looked like a godsend in 1994, but three years later you couldn’t even give one away. Nowadays, almost all offices buy electronic equipment on a JIT basis; and you can bet the companies they buy from order new stock only when they need it.

3. Production. Many items produced by the modern office are produced Just In Time from raw material and recycled components, because it’s often impossible to predict the end-user’s needs or a product’s contents in advance. Consider the banker who compiles a report on the million-dollar plus deposits at his big-city branch each week. Obviously, he can’t guess for certain who will make such deposits, or how much they’ll come to. While he may use a template to prepare the report, its contents and the dollar total will always differ from week to week.

Similarly, computer coders may reuse existing code, modules, or “engines” to speed up production, but each program requires its own unique combination of recycled and new code. Besides, most software projects evolve as they proceed; few can predict the shape of the final product. Similarly, report writers may use boilerplate in their reports to set up the background, but otherwise the details, content, and language will vary based on the results of their tests or investigations.

4. Product Distribution. With electronic communications, we no longer have to guess how many copies of a report, memo, or email we need to print in advance for our audiences or meetings. Electronic copies are endlessly replicable; once you’ve done the work, you can make as many copies as you need, whenever you need them.

Right on Time

JIT doesn’t work for every office process, but its adaptation to most has become inevitable. (Click to Tweet →) Ultimately, lean office work—just like lean manufacturing— is all about flexibility, one of the prime components of the agile modern office. Rather than anticipating a demand and having something in the pipeline or waiting in the wings, you wait until someone expresses the need and quickly produce the goods based on prior preparation. No longer does perfectly good work go to waste, because you finalize nothing unless someone proves they want or need it.

Have you looked at the work you’re creating lately and asked if it’s of value to your end user? Do they use it? How do they use it? How often do they use it? Could you provide it on an as-needed basis, instead of a set amount? Apply the ideas above to your own work and see if you could cut back—and spend the time on something even more valuable to the end-user. What is that? You’ll have to ask to find out.

© 2017 Laura Stack.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email, or CONTACT US.

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  1. Karen Rich says:

    This article is so true! I can recall in my early days with boy scouts that my husband would carry a box of flyers, applications and brochures around to meetings. Other items were only mailed to certain titled individuals to save cost. Now, those same documents are online for everyone to see and all we need to do is bring a sheet of paper listing the links to those items.