The Need for Office Kaizen

Sitting late in my office on a rainy evening last week, I was putting the final touches on a book on 5S. At the end of a long and tiring day, the steady beat of the rain on the windows and the cool wind blowing through the door acted as soporifics. Yearning for a cuppa of something hot, I pushed my laptop aside to get up. Some books on the other side of the table tumbled down and followed by an avalanche of loose papers. All thoughts of a refreshing drink vanished as I stooped to recover the papers and books. This set me thinking.

I looked around at the other tables in the office. Like mine they too were piled high with books, though the staff had taken care to file the papers away before leaving. Clearly my office needed to be cleaned up. But was that enough? Would mere cleaning up solve the problem?  I realised that the problem ran deeper than that.

Where would the manufacturing industry the world over have been but for the productivity improvement tools emanating from Japan? Certainly industry in India would still be locked in the self defeating cocoon of low productivity, poor quality, and thin margin trap. In the last two decades, the need to survive and grow in a competitive global environment has impelled manufacturing businesses, to adopt several methods to improve productivity and reduce defects.

What if I adopted similar tools to improve the productivity in my office? Was this just my thinking, spurred by my angst at the state of my office, or was this a universal phenomenon? Did other offices too face such problems? What about the offices of businesses that had successfully adopted productivity tools? This is when I realised that I had the answer right in front of my eyes. Namely, the book ‘Office Kaizen’, by William Lareau.

‘Office’ implies any business process and function that is not a pure ‘factory’ task, such as assembling, welding, machining, fork lift driving and so on. The word kaizen is a compound Japanese word. ‘Kai’ means ‘little’, ‘ongoing’, and ‘good’, according to William Lareau.  The word comes from the Toyota Production System. In fact it is an integral part of 5S, lean manufacturing, reengineering and what have you.

Till now kaizen has been practised on the factory floor with great success. Flexible, synchronous, pull, and other manufacturing systems, have increased factory productivity dramatically. Inventories’ have plunged and lead times shortened by factors of two to ten. Marrying a very productive manufacturing system with an old fashioned office system is like fitting a motor car engine to a bullock cart. The engine works just fine but the cart can go only at its own pace. Result, there is a significant deficit in overall performance. Every business needs a strong back up from the ‘office’ side of the enterprise to reap the full benefits of improvements in factory productivity. In fact office organisation and productivity is essential if a business wants to be world class.

According to Lareau, Office Kaizen creates office and administrative processes and work groups that generate a competitive advantage, not compromise it. The business will reap advantages from several sides. Costs will decrease as fewer errors are committed. Planning and analytics will improve, since reliable data will be available quicker. This will help the business organise its entire production schedule better.

For businesses eager to improve their overall performance, ‘Office Kaizen’ provides the foundation for the next great step-wise competitive advantage.