The Continuous Improvement Blog

5 steps to optimising your back office operations with Lean Management

Written by Colin McArdle


For many companies in the service industry, the back office is where customer needs and requests are actually fulfilled. But back office operations are often marred by complexities, with fluctuations in demand, high variability in tasks and variations in individual performance all impacting on efficiency.

For this reason, many companies choose to apply Lean Management to their back office operations. Lean Management involves simplifying, standardising and automating processes so that you can deliver more value to customers for fewer resources.

In this blog post, we outline the steps involved in applying Lean Management to your business.

1. Understand the work

The first step is to determine the customer requirements. Research trends, analyse your data, speak to your customers and find out how, why, when and where they use your service. If you know what customers value, you can make sure you deliver a service that meets these expectations.

Then you can look to understand what happens when requests for service enter your operations. We call this going to Gemba (a Japanese term for where the work is performed). It involves taking videos, collecting process information and speaking to staff to determine what really happens - not what a spreadsheet tells us or what a manager thinks happens.

You need to determine how requests enter the company, including the volumes, complexity and type. There will be multiple entry points such as phone, text, email and other online channels, so segment the demand to determine how different work types can be processed in the most effective and customer-centric way. Then conduct work study analysis by observing and timing processing activities as they happen. This will reveal how long activities actually take, and the skills and resources required to perform them.

These methods allow you to measure productivity and identify opportunities for gains or losses over time.

2. Identify value-adding and non-value-adding activities

The object of Lean is to eliminate ‘waste’ - tasks that add no value to the customer or the business. Examples might include creating multiple copies of the same document, duplicating process steps in different departments, unbalanced workloads, or unnecessary movement of parts, materials, files or documents. These are all things that the customer gets no benefit from.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) helps illuminate these non-value-adding activities. VSM provides a snapshot of the current state of processes within an organisation, depicting all the key people resources, activities and information flows required to provide a service to the customer.

Once waste has been identified it can be removed from the process. But how you eliminate this waste depends on its nature.

If you are experiencing multiple errors and loss of time due to rework, you may choose to introduce error-proofing. The idea of error-proofing is to achieve zero errors by either preventing - making it impossible or difficult for an error to occur, or automatically detecting errors - making it obvious that an error has occurred.

5s workplace organisation is another Lean approach that helps companies eliminate waste in their processes. 5S is a systematic approach (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardise, Sustain) to organising the workplace to reduce time spent on non-value-adding activities such as; looking for things, retrieving files, opening systems and printing documents.

Shine and Standardise aims to minimise the risk of equipment or systems not being ready to be used, running slow or breaking down, and to stop people carrying out tasks in non-standardised ways. Sustain introduces timely audit of the workplace to make sure the 5S methodology is maintained and productivity continues to improve.

3. Make work flow at the pull of the customer

Once waste has been removed, remaining processes can be streamlined to create flow, so that service requests are completed from receipt to delivery without stopping. This may involve some changes to the organisation of your processing activities, for example, changes to the design of your office space or introducing automation of repetitive tasks. Often there will be a period of trial and error in finding a system that works best for both your employees and your customers.

4. Manage activities

The work doesn’t stop once you’ve agreed on the new processes. For them to succeed, you’ll need to take additional steps.

Educating staff about new processing and equipping them with all the information they need is vital to your success. You may also find that some job functions need to change so that all processes can be carried out more efficiently.

It is also a good idea to introduce Short Interval Management (SIM). Think of this like a ‘daily huddle’ - at the start of each day get everyone in the team together to share what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and whether they have any obstacles that prevent them from doing their job. This way any challenges can be eliminated before they become a problem.

You may want to accompany SIM meetings with visual management boards or screens that show key performance indicator charts with trends, so everyone in the company has full visibility of how the business is delivering against local objectives and overall strategy.

5. Continuously improve

A philosophy of continuous improvement underpins the Lean Management approach. And a continual drive towards solving problems and finding better ways of working needs to become part of your company’s DNA.

Your staff are key to building a continuous improvement culture and should be your number one resource. Use team-based structured problem solving, such as Kaizen workshops to fix and eliminate problems identified through SIM. Kaizen workshops involve gathering operators, managers and owners of a process in one place, mapping the existing process and identifying opportunities.

Key to encouraging this activity is enabling staff to see and track the results of their impact and recognising their success.

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Colin McArdle

Written by Colin McArdle

Colin McArdle, the Founder and Managing Director of Kaizen Kulture is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has over 30 years industry experience. Kaizen Kulture's mission is to be true to the ethos of continuous improvement.