Most organizations tend to "push" information from process step to process step, whether the subsequent step is ready to do anything with it or not. People within the process are pleased just to "get it off their desk," as the work becomes "somebody else's problem."

"Push" environments tend to give rise to a high level of expediting, and priorities are made based on "who yells the loudest" or "the squeaky wheel." Further, it creates functional "islands" where work is "thrown over the cubicle wall."

Such practices result in outcomes counter to the objectives of the organization, and the people who work in them. Rather than getting more work out the end in shorter time frames, the opposite holds true. Bottlenecks arise, lead times increase, throughput decreases, and quality tends to decline. It is analogous to pushing on the end of a rope or chain -- the rope or chain gets bundled up, gnarled and ugly. This is just what happens in any business process. So what is an organization to do? What is the alternative? Lean Thinking tells us that we should "pull" the work through the process rather than "push."

Pull is defined as a method of controlling the flow of resources based on actual demand or consumption. In its most basic sense it is a decision tool. In manufacturing, it helps organizations decide what to make and when to make it, and what to buy and when to buy it. In offices and services the resources that need to be controlled are information and people. The same pull concepts used in manufacturing can be applied to office and service organizations. They can help office and service workers decide what to work on and when to work on it in order to maintain customer service, while preventing overproduction.

In general, it is a Sequential Pull System that finds the most frequent application in an office or service environment. Here a limit is placed on the queue that when reached triggers a decision. In the case of a maximum limit, it could mean that the supplying process (i.e. the "supplier" of the information) decides to stop processing a particular type of information and begins processing a different type of information. There is no need to continue to process more information beyond the desired maximum (i.e. overproduce) as the downstream or customer process cannot process it in a timely manner. The "supplier" might as well work on something else.

In the case of a minimum limit, this would signal the "supplier" to return to processing a particular type of information because the downstream process will be ready for it. One can easily see that the flow of information as well as the "supplier" can be effectively controlled by the establishment of such basic decision rules. Further, the "supplier" can self manage -- requiring little or no direction from a supervisor or manager.

At a design-to-order company where every order requires some level of design effort and other activities to be performed prior to production (e.g. estimating), the information was a hardcopy "project" placed in a folder. A series of baskets hung in visible locations (a central aisle) in the office provided queue visibility. The baskets were timed in such a way that anyone would be able to identify folders that were not being processed in the timeframe established. This was an indication that one segment of the order process was having difficulty keeping up with demand at that particular time. Over time, associates in the office learned to respond to the visual signals provided by the folders in baskets with little or no direction from the office manager. In other words, the pull system became "worker managed."

In a Sales example, a company previously had what could be described as a "sales funnel" where pre-qualified sales opportunities were placed in queue to be followed up upon at a later time. These opportunities were identified by geographical region -- in reality there were multiple "sales funnels." As part of a lean office effort, the organization made these queues visible. They also established goals with regard to the lead time in which they wanted to follow-up on these sales opportunities. Once this visibility was provided it became apparent that particular regions were not able to get to their opportunities in a timely manner. Sales management would monitor the regional queues and re-direct particular opportunities that were approaching the established lead time goal to sales associates who had available capacity. In other words, sales resources were "pulled" from other regions to meet demand in another region. This was a major contributor to the 12% one-year increase in revenue.

At this point the reader should be able to recognize that there are common characteristics of Pull Systems. These include:

  • Visibility of a queue of work,
  • Limits defined for a queue,
  • Defined rules for the queue when the limits are met.
  • Use of visual signals (i.e. kanbans) that are worker managed.

Benefits of Office Pull Systems

The benefits of the application of pull systems in information processes include greater predictability in the lead time for a process. Since the amount of work in process at anytime is controlled, the lead time through the process becomes consistent and predictable. This is an important benefit in terms of consistently maintaining customer satisfaction.

Another benefit to the organization is that it makes the management of the process easier. Since the system is most often worker managed, process managers find that their traditional roles will change. They move from a "traffic cop" role -- directing every point of the process -- to managing a single point of the process. Typically, this point is a queue at or near the beginning of the process. And most often, the key responsibility is to monitor incoming demand and compare it to the capacity upon which the overall process is designed. Management can then focus more on affecting process and business improvement. This important activity often goes unattended, as managers get caught up in the day-to-day direction of even the most basic tasks that takes place in many work environments.

Still another benefit is the improved utilization of resources through increased flexibility -- utilizing people's full talents and abilities. Cross training is often a necessary action that is part of a pull system implementation in the office. It is necessary to maximize the benefits of the pull system. Unfortunately, a serious lack of cross training exists in most office and service environments. The implementation of pull systems can drive much needed cross training as people will no longer be overproducing thereby freeing up time for this important activity.

Summary

Most office and service organizations are just scratching the surface when it comes to the application of pull systems in their operations. However, with a deeper understanding of the concepts, the opportunities to apply will become more apparent. With a solid understanding of the basic elements of all pull systems, people will be better able to adapt the concepts and successfully implement the concepts, and realize the benefits aforementioned.

Drew Locher is managing director of Change Management Associates based in Mount Laurel, N.J. which provides lean consulting and organizational development services. He is co-author of The Complete Lean Enterprise - Value Stream Mapping for Administrative and Office Processes -- a 2005 Shingo Prize winner, and Value Stream Mapping for Lean Development -- a How-to Guide to Streamline Time to Market. www.cma4results.com.