Using Telework to Lean Out the Enterprise

July 2, 2013


A few decades ago, Toyota Production System gained attention for its manufacturing processes.  The methodology and collection of tools used by Toyota engineers was later coined “lean” and popularized in the book The Machine That Changed the World.  (Coincidentally, lean started to become popular during the era when the process improvement methodology Six Sigma was taking off, and today the methodologies are combined, termed Lean Six Sigma, in many organizations).

One of the central themes of lean is to reduce waste.  Waste leads to higher internal costs, lowers profits, and/or decreases customer satisfaction.  Waste can be classified into 7 categories:

  1. Transportation.  Unnecessary movement of goods, people, materials, or documents.
  2. Inventory.  Excess inventories don’t generate revenue (because the goods aren’t sold) and lead to higher costs (to hold and maintain them).  This led to the concept of “Just-in-Time” – no inventories, providing a product or service exactly when the customer requests it.
  3. Motion.  Excess motion or unnecessary movement in the production process.
  4. Waiting for the next process step.  Wait time can make up 90% of the overall process cycle time.
  5. Over-processing.  Doing more work on a product or transaction than is absolutely necessary.
  6. Over-production: Producing more than what is necessary.
  7. Defects.  Rework that is done to fix something that should have been done correctly the first time.

What does waste have to do with telework?  A lot.  In many organizations, telework is still seen as an employee privileged or perk.  As I have argued in the past, organizations need to think more strategically about how to leverage telework to achieve competitive advantage.   Telework has the potential to reduce waste and lean out the enterprise.

For example, telework can greatly reduce transportation for employees.  Internal travel can be reduced by leveraging video conferencing or desktop sharing applications.  Traveling to client or customer locations can be reduced by hiring talent near these locations versus hiring at corporate headquarters or company hubs and sending employees to the customer.

Excess motion can also be reduced.  In the manufacturing world, a “spaghetti diagram” can be created that traces the paths employees take around the plant to do their job.  The same concept applies to the typical office building.  How much do employees move around to meet with people or use office equipment?  Reducing office space, perhaps moving to an open floor plan or hoteling environment, can allow employees to work more closely with others they may need on temporary basis  or allowing employees to work from home can eliminate most motion altogether and make employees more productive.

If you think about it, you may come up with additional ideas of how telework makes the organization more efficient, reduces costs, reduces waste, and increases customer satisfaction.   This can help you build the business case for telework if you are just starting out, or it can help maximize the potential of the virtual workplace if telework already exists in your organization.

Good luck,



Telework & The Theory of Constraints

November 6, 2012

In 1984, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt published the landmark management book, The Goal (if you haven’t read it by now, put it on your reading list today).   The book, written as a novel that follows a plant manager desperately trying to turn things around before the plant is shut down, outlines Goldratt’s management model known as the Theory of Constraints (TOC).  Goldratt’s belief was that a small number of constraints, or bottlenecks, prevent an organization from reaching its goals.  The old cliché “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” aptly summarizes TOC.  Management should identify and eliminate (or at least increase the flow through of) the constraint to achieve expected outcomes. 

Although Goldratt’s book uses a manufacturing example, TOC can refer to a variety of management challenges, including telework.   When implementing a telework or flexible work initiative, every organization has to consider various factors that will fall into general buckets of people, policy, and technology.  Within each of these areas it’s possible to zero in on the limiting factor or factors which are preventing the organization from a successful rollout.

Adapting Goldratt’s 5 steps to improving a system to a telework initiative would look something like this:

  1. Identify the constraint(s) preventing the organization from achieving its goals (i.e.  mid-level management resistance is becoming a barrier to organization-wide adoption).
  2. Decide how to remove or get the most out of the constraint (i.e. target mid-level management through additional training, communication, and metrics).
  3. Align the organization to support the decision in Step 2 (i.e. top-down communication from senior management, mandatory pilots, or metrics published and tracked at the executive level).
  4. Make any other major changes necessary to break the constraint (i.e. incentives, incorporation into performance evaluations).
  5. Go back to Step 1 if goal is not achieved.

If nothing else, Goldratt’s TOC provide a good mental model for leaders. Every large scale initiative like telework/flexible work will encounter obstacles.  Successful leaders are those that can quickly identify the right barriers and design ways to overcome them.

Good luck,



Process Improvement in the Virtual Workplace, Part 2

February 7, 2012

In part 1 last week, I described a check request process involving several approvers and a manual workflow that relied on the company’s intra-company mail.  With employees no longer co-located in the same office building, a virtual process needs to be created.  The old process is shown below (I have spared you my bad drawing and used Microsoft Visio to create the workflow this time).


The natural tendency is to jump right into solution mode and start building a better process.  Try to resist this temptation.  Before getting to that point, try one more quick process mapping exercise.   This time we’ll take a step back and think of a high-level view of the basic steps or things that need to happen (sometimes referred to as a ‘functional’ process map).  I’ve also included who’s responsible for each of these basic steps and the inputs needed for that activity to occur. 


With these 2 views,  the team should have a good understanding of what’s really happening versus what needs to happen.  Let’s assume that the team has also discovered in Part 1 that an e-signature or some electronic approval doesn’t violate any company policy, audit requirements, or government regulations but the approval process (thresholds and who has to approve) is mandated by corporate policy.  Now the team is ready to begin brainstorming how to accomplish the basic functions described above given what’s needed for each step (inputs), who is doing the work, and the constraints on the process (i.e. policy on approvals). 

Basic brainstorming techniques should apply.  The team should generate a number of alternatives that should accomplish the basic activities and improve the key metrics identified in Part 1.  Once the alternatives are detailed, the team can evaluate each alternative based on scope, budget, and timing.  Perhaps the team comes up with an idea of creating a web-based interface with an automated workflow that ensures the request is valid prior to being submitted.  Or, the team may opt for a more cost effective option of an electronic form that can be emailed to approvers instead of relying on the company’s snail mail.  Once an alternative is selected, the team can begin mapping out the new process (yes, more mapping!).

Of course, the team will have to get approval from management before implementing.  It’s a good idea to also pilot the new process before formalizing and implementing enterprise wide.  Also, leaders should communicate and socialize the new process to ensure all impacted groups are aware and understand the new process.  If done correctly, the new process should improve organizational metrics, eliminate non value added work, make the lives of employees easier, and support virtual working. 

 Happy mapping!

– Jason


You’ve Kicked Everyone Out of the Office. Now What?

January 31, 2012

Process Improvement in the Virtual Workplace, Part 1

Organizations implement telework programs for various reasons, from saving real estate costs to improving employee satisfaction.  However, very few think about how processes may be affected once employees are dispersed or working from home.  There’s an opportunity to leverage the virtual environment to improve old processes and make things more efficient and effective if leaders take the time to understand what is really going on in their business and search for ways to do things better.

Let’s take a quick example.  I used to work for an organization that had a very manual check request process.  An employee had a need for money, say to reimburse a job candidate that recently came in for an interview.  The requester had to fill out a paper form then get several signatures on it for approval before accounts payable would print and send the check.  Simple, right?  Now imagine what happens if everyone is working from home or remotely and a requester can’t walk through the process or get physical signatures.  This could severely slow down the process.   How do you prevent this?

 First, understand all the steps of the process.  If the process is not already documented, map the process in detail, including all the steps (even the rework loops and steps that don’t add any value).  Process aficionados will no doubt be familiar with process mapping software like Microsoft Visio but I have created it below using pen and paper to illustrate how easy this is (and yes, I do know how bad my drawing  is).

A couple of quick notes about the process map: I have created a cross-functional process map, or “swim lanes,” to show the major players involved and the handoffs between them.  I have also annotated the manual workflow (the envelope icons) and where we might have metrics or policy issues (more on that later).

When you map the process you may be surprised at how many steps and people are actually involved.   Just going through this exercise can be beneficial because it teaches you a lot about what’s really happening.   The paper form needs 2 to 3 approvals, it travels 3 to 4 times through company mail (if everything goes right), and there are 4 opportunities for rework or for the form to get kicked back to the requester. 

Next, measure the process.  You may have existing metrics or identify where you would like to collect some data (annotated by the “M” on the map).  You may be interested in things such as the average number of check requests, the overall cycle time of the entire process, the number of times a request is rejected at each approval, and/or the quality of check requests (number of requests forms filled out correctly vs. what’s rejected by accounts payable).  Once you know how the process is performing you can set targets or goals once the process goes virtual.    

Third, look at your organization’s policies or industry regulations.  This will provide potential constraints or limitations on the new process design once you begin to build it.  On the process map above, I have highlighted some areas with the letter “P” to investigate further.  For example, is there a policy or regulation requiring a hand signature or would an e-signature suffice?  What are the thresholds (i.e. check amounts)  that require additional approval?  In other words, do I need this many people to approve a check??

A word of caution: don’t rush this discovery process.  The more you know about the process can save you lots of time when you build the new, improved version.  In Part 2 next week, I will cover how to take the next step by using what you learn to create the virtual process.

– Jason

A Process-Centric Approach to Telework

October 4, 2011


Over the years I have been taught that any successful initiative relies on the 3 pillars of people, processes, and tools.  In today’s workplace I believe the traditional paradigm has to be expanded to 5 key areas: people, processes, policies, places, and tools/technology.  Think of it as the who, what, where, and how work gets done.

For many telework initiatives, organizations are usually good at policies, places, and the tools associated with telework.  That is, organizations create the rules that govern teleworkers, establish where people may work (i.e. working from home or remote locations), and the tools needed to support telework (from VPN to video applications).   Yet, most organizations fail to look at their internal processes. 

 Why is a process approach important?  All organizations are made up of processes – the series of steps or activities that produce desired outputs.  Many of the commonly asked questions during a telework implementation, such as who should be eligible for telework, how should teleworkers be measured or what are the critical job requirements, can be answered if leaders better understand their own processes.   Here are a couple of things leaders can do as they design their telework implementation:

  1.  Identify current processes.  Gather current process documentation – process maps, work procedures, etc.  Is it current?  Make sure it is up to date, detailed, and accurately reflects how work is done.
  2.  Add additional information to process documentation.  Overlay process maps with information about the people performing the process (i.e. what department/functional organization they are from, experience or level) and the tools used to complete process activities (this is good place to involve your IT partners to identify current IT architecture, systems, and tools).
  3.  Identify process metrics.  What are the metrics that measure the process performance?  If none exist, then what metrics could/should be used?
  4.  Identify the critical elements.  What are the critical, value-added activities versus the activities that could be eliminated?  Are there any restrictions, critical parameters, exceptions or special requirements?

 If you can answer the questions above, you have a good foundation for your telework implementation.  Understanding how things work and who does the work is critical before changing where the work gets done (if you have ever been part of an organization that has outsourced a broken process, you know exactly what I mean).  In future posts I’ll talk about the next steps of using this information to begin planning for implementation and creating a change management plan.