I’ve been writing a new online course on how to apply Lean concepts to service processes, and in my reading up on the subject I came across this statement:

“Setup and changeover time don’t affect transactional processes, so there is no need to batch work in an office. Therefore flow is easy to achieve.”

At first, I took this statement as a fact, but then I considered it more deeply. Yes, it’s true that setup or changeover times are rarely important in transactional processes. Gone are the days when changing between computer programs required the user to save their work, exit the first program and then launch the second. Workers can now switch from one task to another instantly with no lost time – and many won’t even remember a time when this wasn’t possible!

Batches of work are created to maximise output while compensating for the losses incurred when transitioning from one product or piece of work to a different one. As changeover times reduce, these losses get smaller, and it eventually becomes possible to produce with a batch size of one. In manufacturing, this is called one-piece flow, and is often considered to be the holy grail of continuous improvement.

So, if there is no changeover time, there is no need to work in batches. Despite this, we find examples of batch working in offices every day:

  • Recording all customer complaints received during the week on Friday afternoons because the volume of sales calls is lowest then.
    Result: the start of complaint investigation and the implementation of any corrective actions are delayed, and the quality department have a huge backlog to investigate on Monday morning.
  • Editing an instruction manual as a single text instead of by chapter, because it needs to go to the printer as a single document and it’s easier to keep it like that during editing.
    Result: only one person can work on the text at a time, and each person who receives it has a longer task ahead of them so they delay starting until they have a lot of time available.
  • Instead of submitting their expense claims as they incur them, saving up receipts and submitting one big claim at the end of the month (or sometimes longer).
    Result: some of the expenses fall due on their credit card before they’ve been reimbursed by their employer, and the accounts department has a big surge of expense claims to settle at the end of the month.

Every one of these batching examples delays the output – the investigated complaint, the finished instruction manual, the reimbursed expense claim – and every one of them creates stresses on the people doing the work because they have a large pile to work on instead of a level, steady volume of work throughout the week. Often, having a large pile of work suddenly arrive in their in-box creates an urge to rush through it, and then the quality suffers too.

These batches are not driven by system, technical or machine limitations, they are driven by human behaviour. People do their work in batches because they like to work that way. It’s the way we learn many tasks: do them over and over again until we become competent, then move on to a different one.

In Lean Six Sigma, we learn to use the appropriate tool for each problem. Batching in office processes won’t be solved by reducing changeover times (Single Minute Exchange of Die, Rapid Setup, call it what you will), but by tackling the root cause of office batching: people.

When I’ve spoken to people who are creating unnecessary batches in office work, they’ve been unaware how harmful their actions are to the speed of the process, the quality of the output and the impact on their co-workers.

Introducing fundamental Lean concepts such as value, waste and speed, and then explaining the consequences of batching in these terms, allows people to recognise and then attack their own self-imposed process constraints.

So next time you think about spending an hour just replying to emails, think about how much more efficient you could be by not working in batches.

Liked this article? Why not take a look at our infographic illustrating the Seven Wastes in your office? Or read our five tips for being more productive at work.

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