Lean In The Digital Office

Lean methodology is not always straightforward to apply in the office. Start by applying it to the digital information and how you access and use it.

The Lean methodology is not always straightforward to apply in the office. Make a start by applying it to the digital information and how you access and use it.

Many of us in product development and manufacturing businesses have become well versed in the Lean methodology over the years. It is not always easy to transfer our successes with Lean on the production floor to our office environments, as I’ve written before. Yet, we know that there is a great deal of waste to be found and eliminated in our offices.

Consider an average burdened pay rate for any given employee is $50/hour. In your office it is probably much more than that on average. Now suppose that an employee spends 2-hours each day looking for digital information, making more than one report with the same information, waiting for information, or holding information while working on other tasks. Again, the reality is probably more than two hours a day.

That equates to 10 hours a week in personal waste, or $500 in wasted man-hours. Now tally up 50 weeks a year for that employee and consider that there are say 100 employees in the same office. That’s $2,500,000 a year in wasted man-hours. That’s a huge opportunity and we have just underestimated it with conservative numbers.

A good starting place for regaining some of that loss is our digital information and systems. In the office, we don’t actually work in our physical workstations, cubicles, or offices. We sit there, but our productivity takes place on the computer, in the form of the creation, modification, or implementation of digital information. This is where the office work exists, and it is where we can apply Lean principles to begin eliminating waste.

Let’s examine the classic wastes as the Lean methodology defines them and see how those wastes manifest in the digital environment. In doing so, we can also examine some simple tactics for eliminating that waste and making things better. I’ll go through each one briefly to give us all some ideas.


This one is simple to understand, but is probably one of the most rampant wastes in most digital environments because of the digital environment. Overproduction, naturally, is making too much of something. Perhaps it is best said as making more than you need.

I like the words more than you need because they make it plain what we are looking for and the behaviors we are trying to stop. Here are some really plain examples of overproduction.

  • Reply all.
  • Multiple copies of any report, form, or piece of information.
  • Multiple analyses or reports from different sources.

There are more, but these three will be enough to get us going and starting to see the rest.

Pressing the “Reply all” option on our e-mail is no more work for us than pressing the “reply” option. However, instead of having one person read and process our answer or comment, now many people must process our response. If we don’t really need everyone to process the response, or if everyone doesn’t need the information in our response, don’t send it to everyone. Don’t waste their time and energy. Send only as much as is needed.

Multiple copies create many of the other wastes we are going to discuss, particularly those of over processing and defects/rework. Here is how it often happens. Someone makes a report and sends the report to several people for review and comment. (It could just as easily be a spreadsheet, a presentation, or a specification) Those different people use different methods for commenting on the report. Now we have the potential even of different copies of the same report being different.

Now, in order to clean things up we must have someone consolidate those reports into one “official” version. This also means that, in the mean time, the other versions are all defective in some way and must be tracked down and removed from circulation before someone incorrectly interprets or acts upon differing opinions of information. That’s a-lot of unnecessary work, and I’m confident that every reader has personally experienced it.

Instead of sending copies, put the document in a safe place and send a link. If you receive a link, don’t make a copy. Here is the rule. Do not circulate a copy of a document for any reason. Send your comments, send your interpretations, but do not make copies.

The same goes for having multiple people provide inputs to a single spreadsheet, report, or presentation. Break the habit of having everyone send their version of the document with their information. Create a single document and have everyone contribute.

Because the digital environment makes it easy to make and deliver copies, we tend to do so. The problem is that multiple copies of information lead to unnecessary processing of those copies, loss of control over changes or alterations to that information, and general messiness and waste. Don’t make copies.


Waiting and inventory get confused. Waiting is the phenomenon of people being idle because the work or information hasn’t arrived.

In our office environment, waiting is commonplace. We wait when other people or processes must finish work so that we can do our work. Multi-tasking is one of the greatest sources of waiting. We pick up new tasks while we are waiting, but then we don’t change tasks when the work arrives so it sits and someone else waits.

This is behavioral. To break this, establish clear priorities and a discipline for dropping one work to immediately process the one of greatest importance. Strive to eliminate multitasking altogether. In other words, don’t assign multiple projects to your personnel. (I know, easier said than perceived as practical)

Simpler aspects of waiting show up when data systems are slow or when we can’t access a particular document or piece of information because someone else has it “checked out.” Typically, though not always, this is minor in the grand picture.

If you are paying close attention then you may have noticed that the solution I suggested to Overproduction might create more waiting. If only one copy of a document exists, and only one person can modify it at a time, then others will need to wait. Yes.

You must make a judgment call, and data can help you make it. Do you waste more by having more copies, or do you waste more by having people take turns modifying one copy? Choose the answer that creates the least waste. In my experience the turn taking generally creates less waste.

Seek to eliminate the need for people to wait for information. The most impactful solution is usually the creation of a cultural habit of not sitting on information, but send it on as soon as it is ready, and by not letting it sit in inventory.


Inventory is work that is waiting to be processed. On the shop floor, inventory is easy to see. In the office it hides in digital formats.

Our e-mail in-boxes are inventories of work and information to be processed. Our to-do lists are others. Organization and clear priorities are our best defense against inventory.

Process your in-box with a FIFO (First-In-First-Out) method. This does not mean that you read an e-mail and do the complete work, before you read the next. It means that you read the e-mails in order of receipt and prioritize your activities and plan your work. Some e-mails and to-do items will be more important or urgent than others. Process them accordingly. Just don’t let them sit, unread, in your inbox.

Again, multi-tasking is the enemy. While you are working on one project or piece of work, all others are sitting in inventory, waiting for your attention. Eliminate multi-tasking as much as practical.


Motion refers to people. Anytime people are exerting effort without producing a meaningful output, it can be classified as motion. That means that, while getting up to go down the hallway to a meeting is indeed wasted time and fits the classification of motion, it is not really likely to be your real source of the waste. There are two more dastardly sources of waste in the form of motion.

The first is likely to be the meeting itself. I know, during the meeting we are not moving, so the title, “Motion” is misleading. However, unless that meeting is making a decision, or actually producing information through collaborative discussion and work of the team in the room, everyone in that room is working without producing. It’s waste.

Go back to your literature leftovers from Total Quality Management, and re-learn how to plan and conduct meaningful, productive meetings. Understand that unless you are creating information, modifying information, or making decisions, the meeting can be considered waste.

It may be that a meeting is the most efficient way to transfer information to a group of people. It is necessary to transport information, and if a meeting is the most efficient way, then so be it. Just recognize that it is not productive, it is technically waste, and therefore, should be planned and conducted to minimize time and energy to the greatest degree possible.

The second big source of motion waste is searching for information. A 5S of your information systems can make a big difference here. I wrote an article for Product Design and Development, www.PDDnet.com, titled, “5S in the Office the Right Way,” which gives some guidance consistent with this article’s theme.

In addition to 5S, we can make a big difference just considering how to make information easier to find with word searches and how to shorten or eliminate digital pathways to information we need on a regular basis. Consider that every link or path is an opportunity for a navigational error. The fewer the better, however, if everything is in a single folder with no organization at all, then it can be just as hard to find. Develop a practical, organizational balance.


Anytime work or information is transferred from one person to another, we can call that transportation. In other words, every hand-off, if it isn’t waste by itself is an opportunity for waste because it invites inventory and waiting, which we have discussed; also defects in the form of late delivery.

The simple solution is to eliminate hand-offs. Try to establish single-point processing. By every means possible, eliminate back-and-forth transfers of information. Here are some common examples and solutions.

Don’t ask people to e-mail you information in the form of weekly reports. Inevitably, they will send something, you will have questions and send back, they will answer, and this will go on for several exchanges. Waste!

If you need an explanation, or you need to provide an explanation or convince someone, or propose something, or instruct, talk to him or her in person, don’t use e-mail. Reserve e-mail for transferring data only, not for conversations.

If there is a two-part process such as developing or producing a piece of work and then an approval, don’t approve it and send it back. Approve it and send it on. Sending it back so that person can send it on is a wasted step.

Reduce the number of approvals as much as possible, they tend to build up inventory, create waiting, and they require extra transfers and transportation. Approvals don’t do anything to improve the work or information; they are just a quality check. Look for places where attempts to inform people have been turned into “approvals” because the system is looking for confirmation of receipt. Return those actions back to what they need to be, a transport of information (again use links, not copies) and a confirmation of receipt. Eliminate the waste of waiting for approval.

Over Processing

Simply put, over processing is doing more work than necessary. If you are formatting information into several different reports every week or every month for several different people, you are over processing that information. Similar to the multiple copies discussion in the Overproduction category, our aim should be to eliminate unnecessary work for everyone.

Instead of having multiple people make multiple reports, have one person make one report, or collaborate to make the report. Minimize the work necessary, especially for reports, which are of dubious productive value in the first place.

One strategy is to standardize. Create one dashboard that as many report customers as possible can use, even if they are only interested in a single section of the dash board. Assign one person, someone who has the information in the first place, not someone who needs to go get it (see motion, transportation, overproduction) to each data point on the dash board and let that person fill in their piece. Eliminate the need for doing multiple reports or pieces of work to serve the same purpose.

Similar to production floors, people often try to solve the over processing problem with automation. We might create macros or other automated solutions that digitally insert our data into multiple reports and save us the time of doing it manually. Unfortunately, every time someone changes a format or wants something different, we must now adjust or re-write our automated solution. Also, if we accidentally insert a typo or other defect, we just automatically created more defects.

Automation often doesn’t solve over processing, it instead just creates more waste faster and often contributes to defects, rework, and overproduction. Be careful about using automation as a solution to common wastes.


Anything that must be reworked is defective. Obviously, any piece of work or information that is incorrect is defective. Also, anything that is misunderstood is a defect because that misunderstanding must be corrected. Lastly, a piece of information or work that doesn’t arrive on time is defective.

In the digital environment, defects can be very dangerous. This is because we are generally talking about information, which we use to make decisions. If we make an inappropriate decision because of incorrect or untimely information the consequences can be very costly.

Unfortunately, because the digital environment makes it easy to make or modify information, we tend to underplay the impact of incorrect data. After all, if we need to fix a typo on a spreadsheet, it only takes a few seconds. However, reversing a decision or correcting a misunderstanding can take considerably more effort. Re-engineering a design because of a typo can be very costly in resources and time.

Focus on eliminating opportunities for errors or defects to show up. Go ahead and use approvals or double-checks (yes over processing) for critical pieces of information. Sometimes one type of waste is a lesser evil than another. Just know when you are doing it for a reason and when it’s just unnecessary.

Most of the other forms of waste are opportunities for defects. Every transportation or hand-off is an opportunity for a change and a defect to be inserted; likewise for over processing such as manually entering data from one digital form to another. We have already talked about overproduction and multiple copies.

Defects themselves are small waste in the digital environment, but the efforts to correct those mistakes and the waste that results from them can be enormous. Scrutinize your data methods with an eye for opportunities to make a mistake or create a misunderstanding and eliminate them. One hint I offer is to use the phone instead of your e-mail. It is a much more reliable form of communication.


Above is just a sampling of how many of the classical Lean wastes manifest in a digital office. The ways to eliminate the waste typically involve some habits and discipline around recognizing when we are creating the waste and stopping ourselves, and they involve simplifying and cleaning up our information systems and processes. They are not complicated, and they do not involve developing u-shaped office work cells, as some “Lean Office” literature would suggest.

Our office work takes place in the digital environment. Apply the Lean principles to that digital information and how you use it. Don’t apply it to the work areas where we sit, our bookshelves, our locations with respect to meeting places, or paper file cabinets. Those are not where the real opportunity to eliminate waste resides.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com.

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