Lean Manufacturing Principles vis-à-vis Return To Office Policies
In this opinion piece, Doug Gregory, an A/V industry expert tackles the current issue of return to office policies and recalls how Lean Manufacturing principles can be applied to the modern office to increase productivity.
Ask yourself a simple question: Is wholesale return-to-office the best prescription for all stakeholders who can effectively carry out their work from home? Was your response data-driven or an emotion-based reflex? It matters.
Why would such a question matter to an audio-visual (AV) touchscreen manufacturer? We live in a world more interested in sound bites than in context. Sound bites lead to uninformed decisions; context views the world from a broad perspective. Does i3-Technologies offer incredibly cool interactive technology with game-changing applications in commercial and educational environments? That is why I decided to align myself with them. But "what it does" is just as important as "what it is." The clearer our vision of the entire return-to-office vis-à-vis work-from-anywhere conversation is the better decisions will be made.
Key principles of lean manufacturing
Some brief context around the RTO vs. Lean Manufacturing question might help. To help save North American and European manufacturers, the 1980s and 1990s saw the wholesale import of the Toyota Production System, commonly called Lean Manufacturing and popularized by Womack et al. (1991) in their book "The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production." I am no lean guru, but I learned a couple of key concepts:
- Poor quality or productivity is caused by ineffective work process design; work process design reflects not workers but leadership.
- If you cannot measure something, you cannot manage it. Data should drive design decisions, not gut feel.
The post-pandemic return to the office
Around 60% of the US workforce is considered office-based, and that workforce segment significantly impacts national and corporate productivity more than any other population segment. Over time, kaizen (Japanese for optimization) events from lean manufacturing systems spilled into the office to identify and eliminate waste while designing work processes to improve results.
Some of the most influential corporations in the world are demanding that their office-based workers return to offices under the guise of productivity, collaboration, mentoring, visibility, and other factors. It reflects a command-and-control mentality developed over 100 years ago with the modern corporation. These decisions are not necessarily data-driven nor the result of in-depth analysis of the work process and designing for productivity. They come across as a reflection of 100 years of doing things this way.
Is wholesale return-to-office the best prescription for all those who can work from home without losing productivity? I don't think decision-makers have a clue. Not only that, but "decision-makers" are no longer the senior executive teams, and decision-makers have become knowledge workers who stumbled into work models that work better for them.
Lean manufacturing principles say we should design a work process utilizing all the tools and resources available to achieve optimal results. These principles consider why people work, who does it, where it gets done (or if it matters), and what technology best supports the work process. The lean process requires us to measure each of these things to (1) ensure organizations are getting the best results possible and (2) their work teams are living their best lives possible.
Contrary to what we read, these are not opposed positions. It is not some zero-sum winner-take-all game, and it reflects the actual decisions made by both sides participating in a work-based relationship. "I give you this in exchange for that." Pretty simple.
Using data to apply lean manufacturing principles to the modern workspace
We collect and use data to help design workspaces. But are we using data to plan work processes? Are we using data to create the spaces we want or the spaces the work process requires? Are we thinking through a centralized location or all the spaces where work gets performed? If not, why not?
Making decisions without the benefit of data, design, and measurement capabilities reflects a weak approach to business. It contradicts all we learned before the turn of the century and negates the great technologies developed over the past 100 years. It is hierarchical "I know better than you" thinking, obliterating all the "corporate culture and values" corporate speak.
Maya Angelou famously said that when people tell you who they are, you should believe them. Organizations actively show their workforce who they are, and employees, gig workers, and contractors believe them. Hence, the s challenges with employee engagement, quiet quitting, massive firings, resignations, and all the disruption accompanying these issues.
There is a better way. It involves the hard work of blocking and tackling that we ignore because focusing on the essential tasks and establishing efficient work processes doesn't make the highlight videos. They don't get noticed until you are part of a team that always punts. Figure out your work process, and back it up with data. Invest in the tools, people, and strategies that optimize the investment and return.
Blanket return-to-office decisions can seem silly, and they often ignore working parents, introverts, those wasting time in long commutes, and those with various disabilities. You know, the things no one sees but that impact vast portions of the workforce, the real world. Conversely, informed decisions create buy-in, engagement, and fulfillment and encourage people with a broad set of circumstances to participate fully.
What creates the best results for the organization?
What allows organizations to tap into the broadest pool of talent?
What builds the most positive and productive work culture?
What does this have to do with interactive displays from i3-Technologies? Here is what spoke to me:
- Hybrid work is here to stay.
- 80% of all meetings are hybrid.
- Work From Anywhere is nothing new. Only the number of people doing so is.
- Technology is the great WFA equalizer.
- Plug-and-play technology from i3-Technologies should be the foundation of team collaboration efforts; it should become ubiquitous.
- The cost of this interactive technology allows it to be democratized.
- Those who understand the work process should drive the widespread adoption of this technology.
Making work-from-anywhere work is not a dream. The world has changed, and it has changed because of the technology available to us in 2023. We have the unique opportunity to reimagine the world of work, to break free from previous constraints, to reconsider what should be done, who should do it, and, importantly, where it should be done. Imagining going back to work the way we did in 2019 takes no imagination at all. It doesn't move work forward and imposes difficulties on workers and their families that lie invisible to those demanding work be performed on their anachronistic terms.
The key takeaway from the return to office vs. Lean Manufacturing conversation is that we know how to get to the work paradise of improving productivity while working wherever makes the most sense to everyone involved. Win-win work is possible when it is intentional and data-driven, the objective is to apply the tools necessary to support performance, and the aim is to improve inclusion and happiness alongside the bottom line driven by productivity.
Win-win work is not some mythical paradise; it is attainable when our intent is adequately focused. It is possible to remove the constraints for how it has always been done and replace them with "what if we looked at it this way?" i3-Technologies is excited to be part of the solution.
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