Drew Locher is managing director of Change Management Associates in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and a Shingo Prize-winning author. In this article, he talks about the importance of standardisation in an office environment.

“The office is different.” “Nothing is the same.” “Every day is different.” “Demand is unpredictable.” These statements are variations of the same theme when it comes to the everchanging work environment often found in offices and service providers, the nature of which is often used to explain why “lean doesn’t apply”. After all, how can standard work, a fundamental concept in lean, apply to such an environment? Truth is, in fact, that these situations scream for the application of lean and operational excellence concepts more than others. To begin with, the proper application of standard work will result in less variation. Standard work is not about having all customers submit orders in the same way (phone, facsimile, or internet). It is about processing them in a consistent way for each medium.

Standard work is one way to address the root causes of variability in an office and service environment. Numerous other lean techniques can be used as ‘countermeasures’ to variability and the waste that it creates. This article will focus on one concept that can bring order to the typical chaos found, what we call “a plan for every process”. First, let’s look at a key aspect of the aforementioned variability.

THE CURRENT CONDITION

It is often left up to the individual working in an office to determine when a particular activity will be performed. During a value stream mapping event of a business process the question “How do you prioritise your work?” is asked at each step or hand-off. This question is of particular importance in the multi-tasking environment that most offices present. The common responses are telling: “When I get to it.” “When someone screams for it.” “Whatever my boss tells me.” These responses are indicative of poorly defined planning and coordination between steps, functions or departments in the value stream.

In a manufacturing environment, the needed planning and coordination is provided in some form of schedule. Most commonly a schedule is created daily or weekly that defines what should be produced and when, or at least by when. Clear expectations are established.

A schedule provides some element of certainty to any work environment. Now, it may be the case that the schedule is not always met, but therein is an important benefit of any form of schedule. It provides awareness of when things did not occur as planned. Identifying ‘non-standard’ conditions such as not meeting schedule is an important concept of lean thinking.

Where is the ‘schedule’ for the various activities performed in the office? Interestingly, one typically can be found in the finance and accounting department of most companies. A financial calendar is established that clearly identifies when particular activities are performed. The schedule often supports the month-end closing process that most companies dutifully perform to generate monthly financial reports and related metrics that give the organisation an indication of performance for the period. Over time, other departments learn to schedule their activities that relate to the month-end process that typically involves nearly every department.

However, most other activities performed in the office are not scheduled in any consistent way. A person will perform these activities as previously described (“when I get to it,” for example). Sometimes he or she will perform a task on Mondays, other times on Wednesdays. Sometimes he or she will perform a task daily. Other times several days may elapse before he or she “gets to it”. From the perspective of the recipient of the output from a person, function or department, it appears to be very unpredictable from a timing standpoint as well as the volume of work.

For example, sometimes they receive no orders, other days five, still other times they receive 10. The recipient believes that the volume of orders varies significantly on a day-to-day basis (zero to 10). The fact of the matter is that the volume is fairly consistent. It is the manner by which orders are processed by the previous person (daily versus every other day). Think about the different activities performed in an office. Which display significant ‘swings’ in volume? Is it ‘real’ or is it ‘artificially’ created by practices employed at a point or points in the value stream?

What would be the benefit of achieving greater predictability in the work environment? What if a more ‘level’ flow of work can be achieved? Can we really create a plan for every process? What about unplanned work? Surely you cannot schedule and plan for everything. We have learned that to affect any change in current practices, people must be properly motivated. In other words, they must see the need to change and the benefit in doing so. Therefore, we’ll start with a discussion of the potential benefits.

BENEFITS OF PLANNING FOR EVERY PROCESS (PFEP)

We always listen to the complaints of people. What makes them frustrated and stressed. Commonly it is the unpredictability of the day. The vast majority of humans want a sense of certainty, a lack of which creates discomfort and stress. I am often told, “I come to work with a positive attitude each day. By 10am, all heck breaks loose and my positive attitude is quickly lost.” Time and time again I hear variations of this same sentiment. Therefore, the primary benefit of creating a “plan for every process” is to reduce frustration and stress. People will feel that they have better control over their work environment rather than the work environment negatively impacting them.

There are other benefits as well, particularly from a customer perspective. If the timing of activities is such that the overall time through a process is more predictable, this should result in improved customer service, and with less ‘rushing’ towards the end (and therefore less stress). Commonly when activities are not adequately planned, less time is provided for those activities towards the end of the process. Everything seems like a rush in such situations, and in reality it is. With better flow and less ‘rushing’ comes improved quality and the time saved associated with ‘rework’ of many forms. So there is a possible benefit of improved efficiency as well.

HOW TO DEVELOP A PFEP

Now that we have made the case for better planning and coordinating of activities, the discussion can turn to how to accomplish it. The ‘Plan for Every Process’ technique is to establish routine where there is little or none. It is compatible with the standard work concept. With all standard work, activities are identified as well as the steps in the desired sequence. The time it takes to perform the activity and the steps required are also included, as well as the key points – descriptions of how to perform the step in order to meet quality, efficiency and even safety requirements. The Plan for Every Process adds to this the ‘timing’ of the activities and/or the steps. It is particularly helpful with the multi-tasking nature of roles in office and service environments, and is created for each particular role.

Timing is often what is required to meet overall objectives of the value stream, also called “service levels”. Therefore, the Plan for Every Process for one role must be developed with consideration of other roles for those activities that are part of larger process, system or value stream. For example, let’s say that the overall desired lead time or “service level” for a process is three days, and the process consists of three steps completed by three different people, functions or departments. Then each step must be completed once per day in order to meet the overall objective of three days. This is demonstrated in Figure 1.

The particular time during the day may or may not be important. Even if it is not, it is desirable to establish timing when possible. Some organisations have chosen to identify two general categories of activities: those that require specific timing and those that do not. For those that do not timing for the entire group of activities is identified, but without the specifics for each activity within. This is certainly acceptable.

The format for the Plan for Every Process can vary. It mainly depends on whether the PFEP is just part of standard work which would include time and key points. Here’s two examples: the first one is the most basic. It is a list of activities through the day and for a week. This can be easily expanded to include monthly activities. A closer examination of Example 1 reveals how non-repetitive activities can be accommodated in a PFEP. Note that from 10.30 to 11 ‘unscheduled work’ is to be performed. Any unplanned, ‘drop-in’ work can be completed at this time, whatever it is. This prevents such work from negatively affecting the more standard, more repetitive activities.

The second example includes the time required to complete the activity and key points, thus making it more like standard work in the classic sense. It utilises a different format, but achieves the same result. Therefore format is not what is most important. We often encourage people to try different formats to see what works best for them, and it can vary based on the nature of the role. It should be noted how Example 2 displays weekly and monthly activities in a simple manner.

The question that should be asked is not whether we can create a ‘plan for every process’ but how quickly we can, and start to realise the important benefits of doing so. It must be noted that most often changes to the initial PFEP will be required as better coordination between functions and departments is achieved, and overall performance of key activities is stabilised and even improved.

The PFEP has proven to be effective in bringing much needed order to many an office and service workplace. Start working on yours.