By Andy Appleyard

The British Library (BL) was formed by a 1972 Act of Parliament uniting the British Museum, National Lending and National Science libraries under the auspices of a Non Departmental Public Body (NDPB). The organisation’s purpose is to preserve the nation’s published literature and make it available to researchers to support investigation and knowledge creation.

There are two sites, St Pancras London with c1000 staff and Boston Spa, Yorkshire with c800 staff. Access to the collection is either remote via the Document Supply Service or on site via the Reading Rooms where it is also possible to visit permanent exhibitions displaying items such as the Magna Carta, Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book), Laurence Olivier’s script for Macbeth and the newly acquired Mystère de la Vengeance manuscript.

Providing access services is becoming increasingly challenging as budgets reduce, customer expectations increase and technology develops apace. Lean management was adjudged to be one method of ensuring service levels exceed user expectations whilst continuing to reduce budgets.

The journey to lean

Lean management is a collection of activities based upon the teachings of Taichii Ohno who developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) during his tenure with the company. His challenge was how to develop a manufacturing system with minimal capital investment. His ideas suggested rather than to produce stock and sell, manufacturers should produce “just in time” to customer order.

TPS has evolved into a lean management philosophy, helping numerous manufacturing companies deliver more with less, and as budget cuts bite, more and more public sector organisations are adopting the approach too.

BL summarised its lean application into four points:

  • Focus on customer needs, listen and tailor services to suit;
  • Have a passion for reducing waste and non-added value activities;
  • Give everyone a voice and the opportunity to make change happen.
  • Customer first

Japanese automotive suppliers place great importance on the customer first principle with emphasis on prevention and “right first time”. Often in the public sector we forget we are providing services for customers and those services should be designed and delivered with the customer in mind.

In order to repackage how customer services were provided, we decided to adopt the government programme, Customer Service Excellence (formerly Charter Mark) as a standard for defining and improving the way we interact with customers on the front line. The BL customer services team managed the project to deliver certification in 2011 and are now looking to increase the scope to include other BL services. Strong influencing factors identified were leadership, employee satisfaction and process management.

Elimination of waste and non-added value

We considered the classic seven wastes defined by Taichii Ohno and noted that in manufacturing inventory is the worst waste, hiding problems such as defects, rework, out-dated products, while tying up capital.

A service function is reactive and while it doesn’t carry stock, when no targets exist, waste is concealed the way stock is, inhibiting productivity improvement.

To trial this approach, we selected the Document Supply Service at Boston Spa as a candidate for our improvement activities.

The first step was to redefine the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the Document Supply service. Japanese automotive companies build KPIs in a hierarchy or hoshin so at every level they are aligned. Focus is placed on the vital few, ensuring they represent quality, cost, delivery, safety and morale. Likewise we redefined the KPIs, subdivided by area and displayed alongside improvement activity boards. These noticeboards are a focal point in each area and act as the backdrop of birdtable team briefings promoting accountability, responsibility and ownership.

It is important to chart the key metrics to understand trends. In some cases we utilised statistical process control (SPC) to understand the normal variation versus the abnormal variation, which helped steer improvement activities.

Having redefined the metrics and set achievable targets, a resource planning model was developed to plan requisite staff numbers commensurate with predicted demand. It became apparent the difference between a trough (the quietest part of the year) and a peak (the busiest) amounted to 40 staff. As a public sector body we could not use excessive overtime or turn orders away, therefore with staff and trade union involvement, we looked at flexible working. As demand varied by area, we adopted the principle whereby staff would move to where the work was. This required a number of things:

  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) ensuring all areas work exactly the same way;
  • Training in multi-skilling so colleagues could undertake various jobs;
  • Redesigning various store layouts so optimum templates were applied in every area.

This provided the capability to balance capacity with demand by area and remain productive throughout the year.

When re-engineering services we considered the TPS approach, in particular the “pull” system, i.e. producing or delivering to customer order. Libraries are service organisations and responding and supplying to customer demand, just in time. The Japanese concept of Heijunka or production smoothing was in use in storage areas as staff prepared optimum batches of customer requests relative to the speed of service together with the most efficient retrieval method.

We also looked at the U-Shaped cell:

The layout allows easy movement of staff around the area, enabling time at multiple work stations. This prevents islands of disconnected activity and if demand falls away, staffing can be reduced pro rata balancing income and cost.

The layout also illustrates the following TPS principles:

  • Clear visual controls and separation – working, walking and storing;
  • Use of the 5s tool via shadow-boards;
  • Items are coming off the pitched conveyor belt according to the takt time i.e. the rate the customer demands (pulls) them;
  • The temporary store between the two lines balances the differing throughputs and acts as a buffer;
  • The shelf manuals have a line on the spine to ensure they are filed in the correct place.

We developed an internal training workshop on 5s. It was a logical place to start continuous improvement (team based kaizen) activities. We used 5s as a catalyst for change as it acts as a tool to define the current situation and clarify workflows.

This change delivered a 25% productivity improvement in service and formed the foundation of a business process re-engineering exercise, making the service viable and fit for the future.


To properly engage with the workforce, staff were consulted every step of the way and training interventions were designed to empower workers to make a difference. Initially, we encountered cultural resistance, such as – “we don’t have time” or “we’ve done CI before along with TQ back in the ‘90s etc”. This was overcome by developing a homemade approach and by selling the success via an early pilot. The change process integrated top down and bottom up by engaging in the following:-

  1. Top down – corporate change projects;
  2. Bottom up – cross functional team based kaizen for examining complex problems requiring structured investigation. To assist cross functional improvement teams and assist in the systematic approach to problem solving (rather than moving directly to solution), see business improvement template below;
  3. Bottom up – Some problems were immediately obvious and a solution was easily identified. Here we designed the Quick Kaizen template. This is a form that basically documents the before and after, whilst acting as a record of process change.

Alongside the preparation of templates we devised a training plan for workers. This comprised of:

  • A half-day 5s workshop;
  • A one-day course on problem solving for all staff;
  • A one day course for managers on team building and facilitation.

One day courses were designed and delivered in partnership with North of England Excellence (NOEE).

Every year we hold a Continuous Improvement Convention where a selection of teams present their lean stories to a mixed BL audience, including directors. This serves to showcase activities, share best practice and provides recognition for colleagues.


The steps taken on our lean journey are as follows:

Lean StepsTechnique
1Performance measurement

  • Rationalised measures to vital few
  • Charted key metrics displayed in workplace
Visual control


2People development and leadership

  • Appoint (senior) champion
  • Training and awareness
Problem solving

team facilitation


3Team improvement activities

  • Early success and quick wins
  • Self-empowered workplace team improvement
Pilot project

Quick kaizen

Team based kaizen


  • Layouts, procedures and work instructions
Process mapping


5Resource planning and efficiency improvement

  • Capacity planning – see 1 and 3

Single grade


  • Showcasing best practice and celebrate success
  • Senior support
Annual convention

CEO visits

Tea & Bun events


The BL has so far completed c500 team based kaizen improvement activities totalling savings in the region of £0.5m. The savings have delivered other tangible benefits such as health and safety, environmental improvements and morale. A member of customer services summed up our lean journey best:

“By only day two of working the new process our team’s inbox was reduced from over 300 emails to zero. This was a combination of the vastly more efficient process and the increase in morale. There is nothing like seeing instant positive results to increase productivity and get the bit between your teeth … It’s easy when you’re under pressure and workload is bigger than the resource to say – we haven’t got the time or we can’t afford to take the time out. Continuous improvement is time consuming but within 48 hours we have reaped the rewards.”