Today we hear from a leading voice in Lean for the Office and knowledge work, Dan Markovitz. I’m so excited that he took the time to speak with us today.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
- Why Dan believes that “Go and See” is the best way to explain to a Lean practitioner on the shop floor what lean looks like for the office and knowledge work.
- Why white collar workers bear the cost of inefficient processes and systems alone.
- Why he believes the shop floor is connected to the customer through the office – and why this matters.
Please read Dan’s bio after the interview and feel free to read our other lean leadership interviews. Enjoy.
Hi Dan, and thanks for taking the time to speak to my audience. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my readers?
Although my company name is “Markovitz Consulting,” I consider myself a teacher. I show companies—and the people in those companies—who are struggling with all the typical wastes, frustrations, and pointless work how to use lean ideas to improve. To that end, I consult, I speak at a variety of public and private events, and I write. My first book, “A Factory of One,” was awarded a Shigeo Shingo Research Award in 2012.
Teaching has actually been a lifelong theme for me. I was a TA in college, I taught for a year in public junior high schools in Japan, taught another year in the US, and coached high school cross country for three years.
Tell us about your personal Lean journey – how did it begin? Was there a specific spark that led you on your journey?
I was forced to slog through a nearly unending stream of turgid, boring, useless, and utterly forgettable books while getting my MBA at Stanford Business School. The only book that I remember—and the only book that I still have from that time—is “The Machine That Changed The World,” by Womack/Jones/Roos. This is back in 1992. I knew nothing about manufacturing, or the auto industry, or lean, or Toyota—but I was absolutely fascinated by the book. I had no idea what I would do with the ideas that Womack et al presented, but I knew that they were important. And they resonated with me deeply. Fast forward 13 years: it’s 2005, and I’m launching my own corporate time management training firm. I realized that the lean concept of producing more value with fewer resources could be applied equally well to the individual as to a company. That began a 10-year journey of continuous learning about lean.
Digressing for a minute here. An MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business is impressive. Their acceptance rate is remarkably low. Surely you’ve got some advice for anyone reading this interview that may be aspiring to earn their MBA?
No advice for getting in Stanford. Honestly, it’s been so long since my time there that I don’t even know what they look for now. But if you assume that everyone applying is incredibly smart, it comes down to the essays — what story can you tell that will convince them that you’ll be a great addition to the student body today, and the kind of alum that they’ll be proud of tomorrow?
For a Lean guy, has the MBA helped you much?
The MBA has been absolutely useless in terms of my business — although it did introduce me to The Machine that Changed the World, so that’s good.
If you were to explain what you do to a person on the manufacturing floor who is well versed in Lean, how would you do it? On which points would you build a common bond?
I wouldn’t have to explain anything—we’d “go and see.” We’d go to the marketing department, or the sales department, or any other area and just watch how work flows (or doesn’t). Someone from the shop floor who understands lean would be mortified at how much waste they’d see in all the administrative processes and the individual work habits. And they’re all the same wastes that the person on the shop floor deals with: waiting, rework, motion, over-production, etc. That would be the starting point for building a common bond.
You are a recognized leader in helping individuals and teams increase their personal productivity. Your approach is deeply informed by Lean principles. If given the option to transform, say the manufacturing floor, what are some reasons that Lean should be deployed in the office instead?
Let’s re-frame the question: it’s not a matter of transforming the manufacturing floor vs. the office. Instead, the question is whether we should focus on the overall processes, or on the way we work within those processes. It’s a false choice, of course—we need to work on both. But I’d argue that non-lean individual behaviors squander an enormous amount of time. If we could recapture that time, how much more capacity would we have to work on kaizen, or visit customers, or spend time with our families, or get some exercise?
As an aside, what’s really sad is that waste in the office never shows up on the company’s income statement. At the supervisory level at least, white-collar workers don’t get overtime, and they fix defects or achieve their “production targets” by working at night and on the weekends. They bear the cost of office inefficiencies alone.
Generally, can you share how some of the better known aspects of Lean looks like in the context of transactions or the office? For example, Poka-Yoke in the office? Kanban in the office? Andon in the office? More specifically, can you share some examples from prior work that might inform my readers?
Jim Benson of Modus Cooperandi has written the book (literally) on using kanban to manage personal work. But kanban can be used by teams as well, which you see quite commonly in agile software shops. A friend of mine runs a patent law firm in San Francisco, and they manage all their work on a version of a kanban board—all the work in the queue is visible on cards, and when it gets “pulled” by one of the attorneys, that acts as a signal to move other work forward. The cards enable them to manage the flow of work for each attorney and for the firm as a whole.
You see poka-yoke all the time in office IT. It’s hugely beneficial in managing data, whether on a custom software interface, or just on a spreadsheet that people are using. The types of data can be restricted to ensure that the right kind of information goes into the form, and criteria can be set that ensure that all data fields are entered correctly—just think of webforms that we fill in everyday. One of my clients created some very simple data masks like this to make customer service’s job much easier.
One of the pillars of Lean is Respect for People. Within the context of non-manufacturing processes, how is Respect for People put into practice? Is there a specific example you wouldn’t mind sharing?
Sadly, I don’t see much respect for people in the non-manufacturing world. How many people are working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks? How many people are expected—or at least encouraged—to answer email on nights and weekends? Leaders in most companies think nothing of overburdening office workers, because (as I said before), it doesn’t show up on the income statement. If you overburden a plant, you have to run another shift, and that’s expensive. If you overburden your marketing department, nothing happens except maybe that you pick up the cost of a few pizzas.
I do a lot of my work in the outdoor and sporting goods industries, and I will say that they’re more sensitive than most firms to the importance of avoiding overburdening workers. Of course, they have to—if you’re The North Face and your staff can’t ever get out to Yosemite, you probably won’t be able to attract good people for very long. Patagonia does a great job of ensuring that people have time to surf and otherwise get outdoors.
There’s a lot more to “respect for people,” of course, as Michael Balle explains in his new book, “Lead with Respect.” But certainly overburdening is one crucial area in the office that I think needs more attention.
Suppose a company was engaged in a bottom-up lean transformation in an area outside of the office. How can the person on the shop floor partner with the Lean efforts in the office to have a broader effect on the organization?
The shop floor is connected to the customer through the office—at the most obvious level, the sales or customer service teams take customer orders, and those order are what drive factory activities. The shop floor doesn’t exist independently, and therefore many of the problems affecting the shop floor are initiated by, or exacerbated by, what the office does. So lean efforts in one area are inextricably linked to lean efforts in the other. I won’t suggest that the people involved in lean efforts start with a value stream map before doing anything (I know how you feel about reflexive VSM activities!), but it’s certainly useful for the folks in sales to know how their work affects the shop floor. If people in both realms saw how their work connected to the other, I think it would spur improvement efforts.
Now the opposite question: If someone was involved in transforming office processes by implementing Lean principles, how might that leader reach out to other persons in the company that may be implementing Lean in their own world?
Okay, I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but in my experience people from the shop floor are—generally speaking—better at seeing inefficiencies and waste than people in the office. I think that’s because they’re always dealing with physical objects and physical movements. Office people sit in one chair and look at a computer screen most of the day (at least, when they’re not sitting in a conference room), so they’re not as attuned to seeing waste. Again, I’m not saying that all manufacturing workers are sharp-eyed and all office workers are blind. Rather, I’m saying that if you’re leading lean in an office, you can get some great observations—or at the very least, some great questions—by bringing in someone from the shop floor to watch the way work is done in the office.
If someone reading this is interested in improving their personal productivity by implementing the principles of Lean, what are the specific steps you suggest they do?
Did my publisher put you up to this? Buy my book, of course! You’ll get step-by-step instructions on how to do that. But even if you don’t buy the book, the first step is figuring out what value you’re creating. That value is seldom captured in your job title, which is more of an HR artifact than a true description of your purpose. Once you identify the value, you can start to figure out how to deliver it more effectively.
About Dan Markovitz
Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a consulting firm that applies lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business.
His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines.
Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company.
Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
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