Techniques and processes developed in the Toyota Production System, often called Lean, can be of great value in office environments. A focus on manufacturing, jargon and statistics have hindered the adoption of these tools in other settings where they can be useful. Non-Lean experts should take full advantage of simple, yet powerful tools to boost their organization’s performance.

Using Lean in Offices

There are several Lean tools that have great applications in office settings. Everyone has processes in their line of work. You may not have a vehicle manufacturing process, but you have a hiring process, a monthly closing process or a purchase order process – and Lean tools can help you improve.

With every process you work with you have two constant challenges – time and money. In any environment you are under pressure to do things faster or cheaper. I’ve spent most of my life chasing time and money, and I now think those things are two sides of the same coin. Time really is money.

The Lean tools I have focused on in my office life are process flow mapping, waste and bottleneck analysis, the 5 Whys, and visual controls. These tools are all simple to use and have – in a variety of situations – produced surprisingly significant results.

If you take a course in process flow mapping you will learn an excellent and detailed process you should use. It will involve shapes used for each step in your process to identify if that part of the process is a transformation step or a waiting step or whatever. I never felt like remembering all the shapes, but I like the idea of having a visual description of the current process. Understanding how things are done in a visual form (or seeing the “as-is state” in consultant speak) is a great starting point for improvement.

My experience is in human resources. What follows are a few examples of how we used process mapping and a few other tools to make improvements – all without being experts in Lean.

Improving Onboarding Process: Removing a Bottleneck

“Nothing focuses the mind so much as the prospect of an imminent hanging” is a quote I read someplace; I’ve had some times in my life where it’s been clear that if I could not fix a problem my new job title was going to be “applicant.” One time my company was cursed by excellent business results. Our sales were exploding and my group, which was responsible for recruiting and onboarding, became the bottleneck holding the business back from greater success because we were taking too much time to identify and onboard new hires.

Process Mapping

We decided to map our end-to-end process, identify each step and look for improvement opportunities. This is not too difficult to do if you get the people who understand the process involved together for a half-day or full-day – and buy food. (Food is the key element to most successful workshops, because it makes people involved less grumpy and people try to play along when you’re buying treats for them.)

We began by creating a visual map of each step of the hiring process. When that was complete, we discussed time and money using a simple Pareto analysis. Pareto was an economist who theorized that 80 percent of your benefit arises from focusing on 20 percent of your opportunities (or something like that). In other words, focus on the big hitters and skip the small stuff. If you’re doing a process step that is unnecessary but takes little money or time, focus somewhere else to start then get back to it later.

Once we had the employment process mapped, we looked at costs and bottlenecks. What things were we spending money on that we didn’t need to? And what things were we doing that prevented us from working faster? You may think that where you work the processes are all efficient and have been looked at thoroughly, and you may be right. However, I must tell you that when we’ve mapped processes and looked for waste, we’ve found it.

When we mapped the hiring process in the example above, we found that fully one-third of the time taken to get new hires into the business was related to approvals. In some cases, entry-level jobs required as many as seven approvals! (That may seem crazy, but I worked in one business where we had as many as 13 people signing off on new hire requests – although in fairness that business was circling the drain.) How did we get to the point of having so many approvals? Over time, more people would want to weigh in on new hires. You had multiple layers of line management, HR, finance and general management all at one time or another insisting they be part of the process. Each request made sense at the time. However, now that we were starting to lose money due to a lack of new hires, business conditions had changed.

5 Whys

When we had the process mapped, and the bottlenecks and value consumers identified, we employed a simple but quite lovely tool from Lean called the 5 Whys. You look at something you are doing and keep asking the question “Why?” to get the root cause of the need for that step.

The seven management approvals part of the process is a good example because that one step alone took more than a week to complete. Why did we have seven people who need to sign off on a new hire? Our first thought before we applied the 5 Whys to this step was to try to automate the signature process online. Automation is a powerful tool for office folks and automation has greatly improved the productivity of office work in the past 30 years. However, we decided that first we would look at the approval process because, after all, do you really want to automate a horrible practice just because you can?

Here’s about how the 5 Whys drill went once we knew that the approvals step was a bottleneck in our process.

Why 1: Why did we need approvals for hiring?
A1: That’s the way we’ve been doing things.

Why 2: Why have we been doing things like this?
A2: Because managers, finance and HR want to know how many jobs we will fill.

Why 3: Why do so many people need to know about hires?
A3: Because new hires cost money.

Why 4: Is the cost of new hires captured anywhere else?
A4. Yes, in the monthly budget report.

Why 5: Who is responsible and accountable for managing the budget for hires?
A5: The hiring manager.

So there we had it. The person who asked for the new hires was also the person accountable for the cost of the new hire. Budget controls were in place, and if too many people were hired in a nonproductive way then the person who hired the people – not HR, finance or senior management – was on the hook to explain this. The manager asking for the hires was responsible if we hired too many people. To make a long story less long, we eliminated all hiring approvals and watched the labor budget and plant productivity every month. We found that with a nimbler process, productivity increased because the production manager could staff her organization in a way to optimize efficiency. By using bottleneck analysis of other large consumers, we eventually decreased the time to hire by 70 percent.

Improving Onboarding Process: Stopping Overprocessing

One type of waste that we like to look for in our process is an evil waste that hides in many office environments – the waste of overprocessing. Well-intentioned, highly competent people frequently design processes with more complexity than required by the business. A former general manager I worked for once told me, “If you hire a planner they are going to plan.” That was a clever way of pointing out that people do work – whether you need it or not. Content experts love to design processes that account for every remote contingency possible. Let me give you an example relating to an onboarding process.

In another process flow-mapping event we found that our medical team was doing a magnificently detailed and thorough job of collecting and documenting the medical history of each of our new hires in the pre-employment physical. We had a fantastic electronic medical record (EMR) system to capture and store the data; it was a best-in-class operation. The process caught our attention because it took a fair amount of time to complete and the EMR system purchased to handle the data was costly. The 5 Whys came to the rescue again.

The team doing the work was incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable. However, their training and experience had been in the medical field – not in the business field. We were collecting data like we would in a hospital or medical office setting, but we weren’t using that data because we were not treating people. I recall a “Far Side” cartoon about the veterinary medicine chapter for treating horses where the recommended treatment for every ailment was “shoot.” We had a similar arrangement, where if you came to us with an ailment our answer was either “call your doctor” or maybe “call 911.” So we were doing fantastic work, but nobody used or wanted it! When we stopped, we saved time and shut down a costly automation solution.

The Value of Simple Visual Measures

Another tool I have found great value in is the use of visual measures. In the Toyota Production System, they refer to visual measures as a dashboard, which makes sense for a car company certainly, but the concept applies generally to every business. It’s a great practice to have a few simple visual controls you can look at monthly or quarterly to know if your processes are working.

The example I used earlier where we eliminated all hiring approvals could not have worked without visual controls. “In God we trust, but all others bring data,” is a common phrase heard in Six Sigma; I believe it. You want to trust your leaders but you also need to check the data. We trust our production manager to hire the right number of people, but still watch productivity, overtime, labor costs and turnover using visual measures to be sure we operate effectively. We’ve had good luck selecting a few key measures for our business and displaying them so we can easily see if we’re going off course.

Measures can be difficult to use, though, because they highlight results. Feedback is a wonderful thing – as long as you don’t get any on you. Measures are important to drive improvement, but if you’re not doing well, some heat may be applied to your operation. With the application of a few practical Lean tools you can approach repairing the underperforming areas in a systematic way.

I can’t offer specific suggestions concerning what you measure, but generally speaking, think time and money. What things are you responsible for that have the greatest impact on time and money for the business? That’s where you want some simple visual measures. I say visual measures because measures where you can glance at a chart and get the idea right away are the most effective. I say simple because I have had experiences where measures themselves became the problem. We created such complex and abundant measures that we had to add resources to manage the measures.

A person I worked with one time had a full-time job preparing process measures every month for the business and sending them to more than 100 managers around the world. She told me she often thought about cutting and pasting the Declaration of Independence sometime in the body of her report to see if anyone noticed. She was pretty sure based on the feedback she never got that no one would.

Lesson? Measures should support your business, not become your business.


How do business processes create waste if the people who set them up do a good job? In my experience, waste occurs because conditions change over time and no one updates the processes, or because dedicated people commit the waste of overprocessing.

You may be thinking that the few examples I used are obvious and anyone could have seen the problems. You may be right. But we tend to fall into the complacency of the familiar and continue to operate the way we know even though conditions and needs have changed. We’re often not hurt by the things we don’t know, but by things we do know that aren’t true. This quote is attributed to many people – all I can tell you is it’s not mine, but I believe in the sentiment.

One final comment should be made about costs. I have consistently found that Lean applications reduce the amount of staff needed to run an operation. When you study your processes and apply Lean tools, the resources required frequently are significantly lower. It’s hard to get me excited looking for ways to improve myself out of a job, and if you’re applying Lean tools to just cut costs you may not have as much success. I’ve had decent success using the tools to improve efficiency and then finding ways to invest in other areas important to the business or avoiding the need to backfill every position by broadening the responsibilities of the current team. If you make Lean part of your business process rather than a one-time event you will enjoy the greatest success. Just don’t forget to buy food for the meetings.


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