The office can learn from the shop floor

Lesson Learned #47

carpedia-lessons-learned-47When Carpedia first started, we were predominantly a manufacturing and distribution consulting firm, due to the backgrounds of our initial founders. We cold-called The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. one day, and the CEO passed the call over to the head of Quality. Our timing wasn’t great, as they had just become one of the few companies in the world to win their second Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award. The head of Quality’s initial reaction was, perhaps understandably, outrage. After he warmed up to us and our approach, he realized that we might prove useful to them precisely because we weren’t hoteliers. He had the insight to see that even a company known around the world for its quality could learn something from the manufacturing world. We subsequently learned a lot from him. Today our company does the majority of its work in office or “white collar” environments, whether healthcare or hospitality or financial services firms. What started with a cold call was augmented by the economic decline of manufacturing and the growth of various service industries. Throughout this shift, we have tried very hard not to forget that office environments can learn from the shop floor.

The basic principles of management don’t change from industry to industry, or one environment to another. In many ways, the shop floor has been a leader in management practices. Many management fads start there and eventually migrate to service environments (Lean and Six Sigma being two recent examples). This may be in part because many of these improvement methodologies are used to increase productivity and often the shop floor is the first on the target list. Or it may be simply that it is visually much easier to see what is happening on a plant floor than in an office. When you walk around a factory, you hear machines operating (or not), and you see piles of material moving (or not). You can visually see activity and backlogs. You also see charts with numbers and diagrams and daily production schedules posted on boards in front of production lines. Few of these visual clues exist in many office environments. Call centers often display real-time metrics up on the wall, but most office environments are mazes of cubicles, with people busily moving paper and hitting keyboards.

More and more office environments are adopting and adapting techniques that were pioneered on the shop floor. This includes basic, but key issues, such as how managers plan and schedule work, follow up, measure and communicate results, and continuously improve. It’s a helpful and useful transition of ideas.