Implementing a Lean program on the Manufacturing floor, in a Warehouse operation, or in a Distribution Centre is challenging enough. There are a series of process steps in which materials are transformed or moved in some fashion.
And your Lean program has at its core the objective of making these operations as efficient as possible. But when you try to apply these same Lean principles to the support organizations, or the back office, you are likely to experience a wide range of reactions.
So why is it so difficult to implement, and sustain, a Lean program in the Back Office of your organization?
In one company I was a part of no one knew what Lean was. However they knew that their business processes needed to be transformed. And on the promise that application of Lean techniques would facilitate this transformation, the deployment of Lean in the Back Office areas began.
The success of the Lean deployment varied over time. In some areas there was great, sustained enthusiasm for the program. People got it, embraced it, and took ownership for ongoing practice in the Back Office. However in other areas the program slowed down, if not stalled out altogether.
In another company I joined there was general knowledge as to what Lean was. Yet it was generally viewed as something to be deployed in Operations or Supply Chain. As such when it came to using Lean techniques in the Back Office the initiative was generally given lip service. It felt like pushing rope up hill.
Yet in both cases the Lean program flourished on the shop floor, in the warehouse, and in the direct employment areas.
What were some of the factors which made the introduction, practice, and sustenance Lean in the Back Office so difficult to keep going? And what are some of the signs you need to look out for to ensure that your Back Office Lean program stays on track?
Landmines and Hurdles
Executive Buy-In and Ongoing Support
First of all if you don’t have Executive Buy-In you are dead in the water. Especially if the leaders of the Back Office functions that need to be changed are not on board. The commitment to change, to staff the efforts, to measure the progress, and to make the necessary investments will be lacking. This will be readily visible to the employees. And most of the time any enthusiasm they had will fade.
Some employees will have a view that a Lean program is only applicable to areas such as Manufacturing because the tasks are repetitive, and transactional, and the processes are explicitly defined. These operations are highly visual.
They view the Back Office functions as areas wherein the processes are highly fluid, where subjective judgements are made constantly and are dynamic. Their jobs often involve phone calls and computer interaction and a lack of repetitiveness. As such they can not conceive of how the same techniques can be applied to the Back Office.
Lack of Leadership
Deploying Lean requires a level of expertise. You can not just read a book and start practicing it sight unseen. You should have someone on board who has real experience in deploying Lean specifically in Back Office functional areas.
And this person should not just be fluent in knowing how to use Lean techniques. They need to be a Leader. They must be a Change Agent. For they have to be able to work at all levels of the organization. They must be able to persuade people, to rally them, to motivate them, to address concerns, and to push the organization forward.
In my experience finding this particular skill is very difficult. Yet it is a cornerstone requirement for Lean in the Back Office.
Generally the processes on your manufacturing floor are likely measured in great detail. Metrics on quality, throughput, speed, waste and variations on all the above are likely captured precisely at every step of your operation. Yet in the Back Office many of the processes that are running may not have been measured in that way at all.
Aside from measurement of activity levels (eg. number of orders processed or number of invoices paid) there may be very little measured in terms of how productive these processes are. Either the lack of metrics, or a perceived inability to implement greater measurement, can create a false perception that improvements can not be made.
Not Invented Here and Dissenting Opinions
I’m sure we’ve all experienced this. I’ve seen it at the Executive level. Sometimes people who are not familiar with Lean, and the change that it embodies, will resist it. It’s not that they are not good people. It is often that it was not their idea. Or they may feel there is a different, better approach or ideology.
A failure to address these concerns, whether real or perceived, can be fatal for a Lean program.
One of the largest concerns I have heard is that Lean is being implemented to eliminate jobs. Certainly there can be a fear of the unknown. As such people may be reluctant to participate in the program that they perceive may result in the loss of their own job.
If the company is not clear about the objectives and mandate of Lean, or any improvement initiative, then these fears will persist. Honesty is the best policy about the objectives.
Lack of Training
The use of Lean techniques requires not only classroom training but real life application of those techniques. If your program only entails a rudimentary introduction to 5S, and that is it, then people will quickly become disenchanted.
And this requires constant use of the Lean tools. Just using them once in a while will not breed familiarity and comfort.
While there are many landmines to be negotiated, and hurdles to be jumped, all of these issues can be addressed in the Back Office. It is important to understand these issues and have a strategy to prevent their occurrence or stop their continuance.
Lean is equally applicable everywhere. People who propagate the misperception that Lean doesn’t work in the Back Office are the kind of blockers who will put a monkey wrench in any change you choose to undertake.
There is no doubt that there are specific challenges with introducing Lean in the Back Office. But having an explicit strategy to address these will help pave the way for a successful, and sustainable, Lean implementation in your organization.
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