Office Work

I was asked to lead a workshop in the sales order department of a manufacturer whom we had helped with process improvement on the factory floor. Those efforts had positively reverberated across the company in the form of fewer late and expedited orders. Still, sales order employees were wondering why we were picking on the order department. “Why don’t you just stay in the factory where the problems are?” questioned Harry, the order department manager.

officework“Yes,” I responded, “there are still many opportunities in the factory but can we take a quick walk through sales order to watch the process?" With some reluctance, Harry agreed, but offered “there’s really not much to see. This is office work; we’re not building anything.”   I didn’t attempt to dispute, but thought to myself, “Yes, you are, you’re building the order that the factory needs to produce the product.”  

“We’ll let’s go see,” I said, “can we start with the last step in the process?” Off we trekked to the sales order entry, Harry still protesting that there would not be much to see: “She’s just keying in orders.”  

Amy, the sales order entry clerk, was busy at the computer as we approached. “Just let me finish this order,” she said. “All good,” I replied, "we’ll just observe." Harry looked at me and rolled his eyes. I noticed that the wall behind Amy’s desk was covered with Post-it notes. On her desk, handwritten orders were apparently sorted into several piles.   As Amy finished the order she was working on and turned to us, I introduced myself and thanked her for taking a minute to talk about the process. “I’m curious about the different piles that you’re working from. Can you please explain them?”   With a smile she responded. “This here is my waiting-for-answers pile: it could be missing a shipping address or a request date, or maybe I can’t read the handwriting, like this one,” she said as she held up an example. "I sort these out before I start to enter so I don’t get stuck in the middle of an order. Then I email the order writer.”  

Harry’s eyes perked up.   “How long do you wait to hear for answers,” he asked Amy. “Sometimes I hear back in minutes; but others take a while,” Amy replied as she dug in the pile to show us an example. “Like this one,” she said, “it has been here over two weeks.”

“How about these orders?” I asked, pointing to another pile. “Those are on credit hold,” answered Amy. “I can’t enter those until accounting removes the hold.”   Harry picked up one of the orders and exclaimed, “But this order is from our biggest distributor. Why are they on credit hold?" Amy responded, “No worries on that one. They’re having great sales this month and exceeded their credit limit. Once accounting sees that, they’ll remove the credit hold. " 

“That makes no sense,” Harry blurted out.   “I agree,” said Amy, “but that’s the system.”

At this point, feeling like maybe the observation was helping to make a case for improving office work, I changed the topic. “How about the Post-it notes on your wall?” I asked.   “Those are special conditions for specific customers,” Amy explained. “Things like special terms or special product options that are not on the computer.”   Harry added, “We have to do some things in spite of the system to keep customers happy.”   “Hmm,” I replied. “There’s a lot of special notes here to follow. How do you ever take a vacation?”   Amy answered: “They put all the orders with questions aside until I get back.”  

I thanked Amy for taking time to help us understand order entry, and then suggested to Harry that we move upstream to the order writers to observe their work. “Thanks, that won’t be necessary today,” Harry responded. “I’m convinced. Let’s pick a date to get an improvement project started in this department."

demingRecalling a quote from W. Edwards Deming:

“The main difference between service and manufacturing is the service department doesn’t know they have a product.”

Happy Spring,

BTW: Are you missing a huge opportunity for improvement in the non-production areas of your company?   Please join us virtually from 1:00 -5:00 p.m. EDT on Monday, March 25 for an online workshop about using Lean to eliminate waste in these settings too. Click this link to register: Administrative Kaizen.

This entry was posted in lean manufacturing, kaizen, administrative kaizen on March 19 , 2024.