Lean: Waste in office work – part 1

When Lean principles got popular and begun to spread out of the manufacturing shop floor, the original 7 types of waste were translated into their equivalent in office environment. Yet office work is less standardized than manufacturing, offering people more freedom to organize themselves. Compared to precisely prescribed execution and streamlined operations in manufacturing, synchronized by planning and scheduling, office work is usually more event-driven ; e.g. answer to incoming calls, process orders or take care about customer complaints, etc. The execution is broadly defined by procedures and guidelines and people organize themselves.

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One the hand side more freedom to organize oneself’s work and act multiplies the opportunities to unwillingly add waste, develop bad habits and drift away from the original work organization or good practices.

On the other hand side, more freedom in execution does not always mean greater freedom at large. Many people have to comply to a fixed routine and/or have to frequently report to management.

These realities about office work suggests that different or more kinds of wastes can be found in those work environments, compared to manufacturing.

Not using full human potential

Often called the eighth type of waste, not using the full human potential is a later addition to the Lean original 7 wastes. It is usually explained as solely expecting people to execute, not to think, reflect nor improve the work, neither being given the chance to prove their ability to take over different tasks, lead a project, etc. This is of course valid but oversees more mundane aspects of wasting human potential.


When people organize their work themselves, they usually see the work to be done within their own narrow perimeter and naturally tend to optimise execution within their span of control, meaning regardless to the next steps in the process. This leads to waiting times when for example files are processed in batches, some tasks concentrated on a given day of the week and so on.

This ends up with a ripple effect along the process. The downstream process steps are processing the work in progress while the next wave to deliver a new batch is building up. Of course, chances are that this isn’t synchronized at all, leading to both information/files and human to wait somewhere.

Waiting comes in many forms:

  • waiting for information, signature, contract… from another person or
  • another department,
  • waiting for colleagues in meetings,
  • waiting for a printer output,

The more human are waiting instead of adding value, the more human potential is lost.

Working hard on what shouldn’t be done at all

There is a widespread belief that common sense is evenly spread among people, thus everybody is capable of organizing its own work in a logical and efficient way. Well, this is a myth. Most people think they are rational and able to organize themselves efficiently but are not. This leads to work in a sub-optimized way or do things that shouldn’t be done at all.

Another reason for people to work hard on what shouldn’t be done at all is the lack of alignment onto the organization’s Goal. This is common because the Goal was never clearly stated nor communicated and/or the organization’s Goal wasn’t translated and cascaded into Intermediate Objectives for stakeholders.

The result is that overall productivity that is lost due to some people working on different goals – often self-assigned – that are detrimental to one another. Even so the different stakeholders or departments optimize the execution in their own perimeter, the sum of these local optima is not going to make a global optimum. Put simpler, those “optimizations” often lead to cancel out one another.

With the relative freedom to organize the execution and when supervision is somewhat complacent, people may choose to work on what they like rather on what their skills would be best used. In such cases, it happens that organizations have no benefit from some human potential because the able people went for the easier or more comfortable way.

Highly skilled person waste their time on tasks below their capabilities and sometimes are overpaid for the tasks they chose to work on. Ironically the ignored tasks are assigned to somebody who struggles and executes in an inefficient way, leading to delays and mistakes, multiplying the waste.

Related: The hole in the pyramid

Finally, the kind colleagues regularly helping others to achieve their tasks and therefore losing time or opportunity to work on something useful instead, they waste their own potential and do not develop the potential of their struggling colleagues. A relatively common situation but a double waste few people are aware of.


When supervisors or managers ask for frequent reports or give detailed instructions, they waste human potential. Asking reports too frequently distract people from value-adding tasks, most often for the sole comfort of worried managers. It is also a signal of distrust towards the person or team, which can lead to disengagement. So does micromanagement when execution is dictated in detail. People feel demoted to stupid doers needing detailed prescription.

Multitasking (task switching in reality)

When people often interrupt their work to switch to another task, they may think they multitask and work on several things in parallel, but this is just an illusion. In reality it is task switching. However fast the switching, it needs refocusing every time. It’s easy to prove that task switching extends the overall execution time and multiplies mistakes.

Micromanagement may force people to switch tasks, or they choose to do so, truly believing they are more efficient in that way.

There are more wastes in office work to be discussed in next posts. Subscribe to this blog to be notified for each new post!

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