Organizing a Lean office workplace

"Where do you want me to go now?"
When helping teams to improve their office or transactional operations (i.e. Stanley Black & Decker) I have been asked 'How should an office be organized to make value flow towards our customers with the minimum cost, time and errors?' 

Although there are well proven solutions for organizing manufacturing workplace such as implementing U-shaped cells to tear down large batch production lines, little has been shared about designing office space using Lean principles. This post is an initial effort to address this void by discussing some important findings and sharing examples from companies such as Kaas Tailored in the US and HOKS in Japan that I had the opportunity to visit thanks to the Kaizen Institute.

How office workplace affects teams performance
In the 70's, MIT professor Thomas Allen led a series of experiments to understand what factors make some teams more innovative and effective than others. He discovered that the most relevant factor shared by innovative and highly effective teams is their physical proximity. In other words, teams that have their members very close are much more effective than similar teams that have their team members farther away.
The explanation behind this finding is based on how team members exchange critical information. Professor Allen found out that interpersonal communication rather than technical reports, publications, email or any other written documentation is the common means how teams collect and transfer relevant information. In practical terms, any documentation is most useful when knowledgeable people is directly available to explain and supplement its written instructions or content.
In this way, office spaces where people are separated by walls, cubes or other physical structures have lesser interpersonal communication and thus lower overall performance. On the other hand, workplaces in which people can quickly and effectively communicate allow teams to be more effective.

Professor Allen's conclusion supports the importance of information flow in an office environment. However, based on this finding, how should be set a lean office workplace be organized? Before answering this question let's review two relevant studies about workplace and team effectiveness.

Developing smarter teams
In 2010, two academics from MIT identified that the smartest teams, better decision makers teams, were distinguished by three characteristics: (1) their members contributed more equally to the team's discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group, (2) their members can better read emotional states, and (3)  more women team members. This last characteristic, as explained by the study, it is not about diversity but related to the fact that women are better at reading emotions. What these findings have to do with a office workplace? A lot. Any office space that allows members to contribute equally and to better read their emotional state would definitive develop smarter teams.

On-site versus online work
How online collaborative tools (Skype, email, etc.) would affect the way we organize office workplace? A new study from MIT Center for Collective Intelligence identified that emotion-reading matters just as much for teams online teams or off-line. They findings indicated that it is not physical proximity but emotional perception what make the difference. However, reading emotions is much harder using  a phone, email or Skype than in a face to face conversation.

Examples for creating lean office workplace:

I. Kaas Tailored USA
Kaas Tailored is a company with many years practicing kaizen (continuous improvement.) Their office space has several interesting solutions from which we can learn a lot.  

  • Avoiding stopping communication flow. Contrary to traditional office space, their office layout does not have cubes or walls. The desks are organized forming a circle allowing information to flow quiet efficiently by rolling their chairs or just walking. 
  • Health and flow. Desks are high enough so people can work standing-up; however, they have high chairs if they wish to sit. There is a lot of evidence that sitting for long periods of time is bad for our health so stand-up desks with high chairs appear a great solution from health and flow perspective. 
  • Continuous Improvement. The office space is designed for experimentation.  Power, network and phone cables are "dropped" so changes in the layout are easy to implement by the associates with limited need of facilities or contractors. Note that all desks are wheeled.
  • Visual. The space is immersed in visual clues. By just standing, you can have a good idea of the information flow.

These workstations are built using a flexible system based on tubes and joints that can be put together by anyone with non or little experience and few simple tools. In this way, people can take ownership on improving by their own, allowing faster cycles of experimentation and improvement. Some well known providers in the US and Europe are:
   - Creform,
   - Fastube,
   - NIS,
   - Flowstore,

Although most of these systems were original created for manufacturing, they are evolved and used in hospitals, retailers and offices in general as you see with Kaas Tailored above.  

II. HOKS (Japan)
Another company with many years applying Kaizen principles is HOKS. Their policy is that anything, even vending machines, must be in wheels so continuous improvement can easily be done by all associates. As in Kaas Tailored, you can see people working standing-up with high chairs by their sides. In this case, a cost effective solution was use to increase the high of traditional desks.

Should you have a Master Black Belt in your Lean Six Sigma transformation?

The role of Master Black Belts (MBBs) is a point of controversy, confusion and even frustration. The lack of a common standard on their role, the proliferation of different organizations offering MBB certifications and the late response of the ASQ to put together a Body of Knowlege (BoK) for MBB did not help. 

The role of Master Black Belt according to ASQ
The ASQ MBB Body of Knowledge reflects a positive evolution of the Master Black Belt role. The statistical and probabilistic acumen, characteristic of Six Sigma practitioners, have been complemented by a significant doses of project management and mentoring concepts. It cautions MBBs from becoming just statistician experts to actually embrace the role of agents for meaning change at all levels of the organization.

ASQ have done an outstanding work. The topics included in the ASQ MBB body of knowledge provide a great guide to Six Sigma practitioners to understand the role that MBBs:
  • Enterprise-wide planning and deployment (25%)
  • Cross-functional competencies (15%)
  • Project management (15%)
  • Training design and delivery (10%) 
  • Mentoring responsibilities (10%)
  • Advanced measurement methods and tools (25%)
In addition, the percentage of questions, values in parenthesis, set by ASQ for each topic gives a clear direction on the relative time that MBBs might spend their role when helping organizations. with 75% dedicated to alignment, planning and mentoring. Even further, the level of mastering of each topic, as presented by ASQ using Bloom's taxonomy, ensure that topics included in the body of knowledge are treated well aligned with the expected role of MBBs. 

Beyond Six Sigma Training and Project Management 
However, the ASQ MBB BoK has its limitations. The highest level of mastering in Bloom's taxanomy, "create", is mainly assigned to project and training management topics shown below: 
  • Pipeline management
  • Leadership for deployment 
  • Executive and mid-level management engagement (project engagement)
  • Project status communication 
  • Project management infrastructure
  • Training plans
  • Training effectiveness evaluation
  • Project reviews (Mentoring champions, change agents and executives)
  • Mentoring belts and non-belt employees
While a solid foundation for training and project management for any Six Sigma MBB practitioner are clearly necessary, the role of any MBB must refocus on becoming a transformational leadership role. The success and failures of the Six Sigma efforts in Motorola, Xerox and GE should be review to strengthen the role of Master Black Belts towards the success of their organizations.Why Motorola failed despite its Six Sigma successes and brilliant Master Black Belts? More analysis is needed but it is evident that Six Sigma project and training management expertise can't create sustainable adaptive organizations.

To Be or Not To Be: The MBB question for your organization
Should you include a Master Black Belt in your Lean Six Sigma deployment? It depends of many factors. For instance, "Belt" titles bring positive and, unfortunately, negative memories to cost cutting projects that meant firing people in some instances. In either case, you need to account for the connotation that MBB could mean in your organization; However, regardless whether you call it MBB or not, the transformational role is necessary to ensure Lean Six Sigma efforts last beyond the initial euphoria