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Improve Your Productivity With 3 Lean Manufacturing Principles

Daniel Markovitz has been a student of lean manufacturing since he first read The Machine that Changed the World as a Stanford Business School student in 1992. Six years ago, when he became a time management and productivity consultant, Markovitz began studying how individual workers might benefit from the principles of lean manufacturing.

"Whether you're a giant factory making computer components or cars, or an individual at a desk producing reports, budgets or plans, you're a factory," says Markovitz, founder and owner of TimeBack Management. "You take inputs and transform them into outputs someone wants. The principles that underpin lean manufacturing--that enable companies to produce more value with less work--also apply at an individual level."

Here, Markovitz explains how IT professionals might implement three of his favorite lean manufacturing concepts to boost their productivity.

Lean Manufacturing Concept #1: 5S

The lean manufacturing notion of 5S has to do with maintaining a neat, organized workspace. 5S stands for sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. When companies implement 5S as part of a lean initiative, they make sure all unnecessary work tools and supplies are removed from the workspace (sort), that all necessary tools (such as a computer, monitor, keyboard, filing system) have their specific places (set in order), work spaces are cleaned as work is performed (shine), cleaning methods are applied consistently (standardize), and that the practice of 5S is continually improved (sustain).

Markovitz, who is also the author of A Factory of One (Productivity Press 2011), has adapted this concept to information. Markovitz believes making sure knowledge workers have quick, easy access to the information they need to do their jobs, such as the status of their work, is more important than having a specific place on their desks for, say, a stapler.

He worked with one client, a pathologist, to create a white board that displayed all the lab cases she was working on, along with the status of each case. Having information about her cases right in front of her, as opposed to on a spreadsheet buried somewhere on her computer or spread out across her desk, was critical since doctors were always calling her to learn the status of various cases. The white board prevented her from having to dig around her desk and credenza for the specific case file a doctor was asking about.

Lean Manufacturing Concept #2: Standardized Work

Automakers have standard ways of assembling cars, specific down to the hand an assemblyman uses to pick up a bumper and the pressure he applies to snap it into place, says Markovitz. Car makers adhere to such rigid manufacturing standards to reduce defects.

In the world of knowledge work, however, little work is standardized. For example, there are no standard ways to run a meeting, check email or perform a budget analysis, notes Markovitz. Yet he believes knowledge workers would benefit from such standards, which could prevent mistakes and oversights.

Here's an example of how standardized work could have prevented a costly oversight when Markovitz worked as a product developer for sneaker maker Asics: His team had developed a running shoe with fancy new features and technology. When Markovitz showed it to his boss, his boss pointed out that the tongue was too short, which would have created an uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoe. In focusing on the cool, new elements of the shoe, Markovitz's team forgot to look at the length of the tongue. He says the mistake cost Asics $25,000.

The lesson Markovitz learned: The importance of coming up with a standardized way to review sample shoes. From then on, he used checklists that noted every step in the process of examining a shoe and spelled out exactly what to do and look for. Private equity companies, for example, might create checklists that list key questions investors need to ask as they perform their due diligence on prospective investments, he says.

"The notion of having standardized work is incredibly powerful because you can ensure you're not forgetting stuff," says Markovitz. "You take the thinking away from the minutiae and allow yourself to focus on creative things."

Lean Manufacturing Concept #3: Flow

In manufacturing, stopping a production line is a costly, wasteful proposition. Manufacturing facilities work hard to ensure that the flow of material on a production line rarely stops.

Contrast an efficient factory floor with a corporate office, where knowledge workers rarely get into a flow. They're bombarded by constant interruptions, whether from email or coworkers, which hamper their concentration and productivity, says Markovitz.

He advises corporate clients to adopt systemic structures and service-level agreements that allow employees to hunker down and focus. For example, a small IT department staffed with employees who man the help desk and work on other projects, could benefit from rotating people through the helpdesk on a daily basis, says Markovitz. So, two staffers could be on the help desk from 9 to 11 AM while everyone else in IT is left alone to work and not have to put out fires. Then, two other staffers take over the 11 AM to 1 PM shift, and so on throughout the day.

"This creates blocks of time where people have the opportunity to work on their bigger projects that require flow."

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