Lean: Waste in office work – part 2

In the first post of this series the focus was much about waste of human potential, that comes in many forms. In this second part reviews the 7 others wastes, first uncovered in manufacturing and later translated into office work.

Office work isn’t as much prescribed in work instructions and standards as the work in manufacturing for instance. To me the main reasons for that is rooted in the history of industry, when workers had little or no education, came mainly from agriculture and in many countries from abroad, not always even speaking the local language.

To use this available but not-yet-professional workforce and ensure compliance to the standards (a novelty than, that distinguishes artisanal handicraft and industry), a lot of rules, organisation effort and standardisation had to be put in place.

Office work required more educated people, usually educated to the tasks to execute, thus already professionals when hired. As such they didn’t need precise guidance and prescription to do their job or worked in teams blending into an existing work organisation.

Over time, work in manufacturing was more and more standardized in order to be executed by virtually anyone, in the same “one best way” with a high degree of repeatability. Office work went more and more the self-organisation way, with looser or broader procedures and guidelines to define the office worker’s span of control.

Interestingly, both – very precisely prescribed execution and less detailed execution prescription – led to the 8 types of waste.

8 types of waste

The 8 types of wastes identified in manufacturing workshops are :

  1. Waste from overproduction
  2. Wastes from wait times
  3. Waste caused by transportation
  4. Wastage due to unnecessary inventories
  5. Waste in the manufacturing process – overprocessing
  6. Unnecessary movements
  7. Wastage due to defective parts
  8. Waste of human potential

The later 8th, the waste of human potential has been presented in the first post of this series.

You may check my post “Muda, Muri, Mura” to learn more about kinds of wastes in Lean parlance.

These 8 types have been transposed from manufacturing to office work quite easily. What is not that easy is to “see” those wastes in an office environment where the most of the work is done on IT Systems.

Over Production

Over production is defined as producing more than what the customer wants and is ready to pay for. Customer should be understood here in the broadest sense, from the next process step, the head of department to an official body, a citizen awaiting a public service or the real customer in the for-profit business.

When the customer, who ever he/she is requires something, producing more of it than necessary requires more time and resources than necessary. It can be as mundane as printing extra copies of a file nobody asked for or sending e-mails and notes to many people in order to “keep them posted”.

Remember yourself angry about the mass of irrelevant mails received “copy” or “FYI”, or mad about all the extra prints of the document which was the wrong one anyway.

The extra work is likely to delay another task, supposed to produce something awaited. It uses more resources than necessary, like paper sheets, toner, ink or storage space on the IT system. It may sound ridiculous to count the beans to this detail, but the multiplication of instances of these kinds of waste ends up, in some organisations, with not negligible waste.

In the end someone will pay for the extra resources used. Customers may be lost to competition because of higher prices or budgets may be cut (usually on the wrong expenses) in order to control costs.


Few people remember that someone else can depend on them for information, approvals or signatures or for attendance at a meeting, an event, and so on. By not processing or handing over swiftly, by taking it easy and postpone instead of handling quickly, those other persons may have to wait unnecessarily. Beyond possibly impeding performance, it is also is disrespectful for those people.

A machine put on hold because the user takes his time does not hurt the machine’s feelings. It’s a different story when subordinates have to wait for the manager’s good will or the end of her cigarette break. Those cases relate to wasting human potential by making people wait, described in the part 1 of this series.

Waiting can also be a matter of slow system responsiveness or a fax, printer or computer break-down. It can be a late delivery, attempting to get a call through… you name it.


Transportation in manufacturing was defined as moving parts or goods from one place to another. This moving does not add any value (it does not change the goods or parts into something else, more valuable). Transportation is often unavoidable, but remains a waste.

Transportation is not human motion, which is a waste of a different kind and will be dealt with later.

In the old days of office work, transportation would be carrying files from one place to another, to the next process step, the next office, department or storage place. It may still be the case in the digitized office, but many transportations are now virtual, through computer networks.

Behind the idea of transportation we also find the multiple hand-offs, physical or digital. Every hand-off is an opportunity to make someone wait or interrupt a task, distract someone busy, etc.

Unnecessary, excessive inventories

When mentioning excessive inventories in office environment, what probably comes to mind are examples like excessive office supplies, clutter, unused or obsolete office equipment, old files awaiting destruction or to be moved to archives, etc. At least to the elder generations.

Nowadays in office environment, inventory is more a matter of Work-In-Progress (WIP) than physical stacks of goods. Those WIP are often a consequence of unbalanced workloads and/or working in batches.

Unnecessary, excessive inventories can also be “information” (data in reality) stored in case this or that file/article/memo might be useful someday, excessive inventory can be found in e-mail inboxes, archives (physical or digital), databases, backlogs, etc.

Unnecessary, excessive both digital of physical inventories can lead to a messy workplace and to mistakes, especially when several versions of files exist. Excessive WIP causes delays according to Little’s law (Learn more about Little’s law)

Open projects

When “office work” means working on projects, like for instance software development or managing roll out of improvement programs, the backlog of open projects waiting for attention is a kind of excessive inventory. In this backlog, chances are that some projects are nice-to-have and may linger in the backlog for a while, giving way to higher priorities. A critical and formal assessment of the projects’ purpose, importance, benefits vs. cost, etc. can help sort them out and reduce the ‘inventory’.

Over Processing

Over processing can come in many forms and one that is usually very annoying is repeated manual entry of the same data. It can be more subtle like the requirement of many signature approvals when one authority can be enough.

Many people do not know to properly use their software and find ways to do what they must do. For instance, how many secretaries not familiar with a spreadsheet use a pocket calculator to sum up figures before typing the result in a test file? Others do use a pocket calculator to sum up figures before typing the result in a spreadsheet…

Rework can be a kind of over processing, especially when redoing something just because “the result did not look nice”.

In a process, multiple similar documents can be created but people remain unaware of it until a global analysis of the workflow is conducted. Likewise, the same data be entered at different steps of a process.

Unnecessary movements / motion

Basically unnecessary movements and motion are a waste of time and unnecessary tiring non-value added activities. Some repeated movement may cause injuries in the long-term, a greater shame if they were unnecessary.

Excess motion can refer to people having to walk to office equipment or searching for other people, or information, files or items they can’t find. Unnecessary movements and motion are often the result of poor work area layout and/or poor ergonomics.

Clutter and a messy workplace can also cause unnecessary movements, for instance when sorting through materials is necessary to find what is needed.

Wastage due to mistakes, quality issues, defects and inspection

Mistakes may require to redo the work, reprint a report, send the corrected document again, etc. This extra work is waste of course as no customer will pay for mistakes in the process. Having to review, check or inspect someone else’s work is a kind of overprocessing and a waste related to (hopefully past) quality issues.

Some errors escalate into greater effects, like errors on order entry that can lead to buy too few or too many of something or deliver the wrong quantity to a customer. Likewise, design errors may lead to discard the inventory of parts manufactured on the faulty design and order replacement in a hurry, at much higher costs.

Any mistake affecting the customer can cause damage to reputation, trust, relationship and ultimately profit. It can be as “simple” as an invoice error or engineering change orders that disrupt the customer’s side of operations because of unanticipated consequences, or losing data or files.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

One thought on “Lean: Waste in office work – part 2

  1. Considering that R&D and car rental transaction processing are both “office work,” it is difficult to say anything that applies everywhere. One of the few universals of office work in 2019 is that it is done on networks of computers, and that it is where the improvement battle can be fought.

    It’s about online transaction processing, database systems, user interfaces, collaboration systems, etc., not filing cabinets and white boards. A tidy physical desktop is irrelevant; a well organized screen desktop, vital.


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