This week I had the chance to conduct a process walk in one of our large, transactional, administrative work areas. A year ago I spent some time in the area, before they had begun to redesign their processes applying Lean. Back then it was a really tough environment to work in. Basically, it was row after row of high walled cubicles, hardly any light an almost invisible work flow. As you would expect the associates working in this area worked fairly independently and most were very specialized to maximize individual productivity. It was not a very easy place to work.
Returning this week I was blown away by how different not only the work environment had become, but also how much more engaged the associates seemed. While many process changes had been made the largest difference was in the work environment itself. All of the tall cubicles had been taken down and teams were organized in eight to ten person workcells. Each workcell had an open area in the middle and various visual systems tracking on the teams work flow. Sitting in one corner I could watch the teams work as teams as opposed to sets of individuals. Associates with problems would raise their hands and supervisors would go to them to help with problems. Small groups were working together on solving problems. All of this was completely impossible in the old work environment.
After the walk I spent some time reflecting with my boss who was on the walk with me. Both of us had read many times in different Lean sources about how important it was to change the work environment during a Lean transformation. We both had also seen before the positive impact a small change in a work environment can have for a team, but neither of us had seen this dramatic of a difference. It was incredible to see just how much improvement can take place by removing the physical barriers that prevent people to work together toward common goals and problem solving. I walked away thinking about just how much more their is to learn about Lean and the improvement that is possible.
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