Herman Miller NT Furniture is NoT Lean
At Gemba we advocate something called the “open office” both for ourselves and to support the Lean transaction efforts of our clients. The open office is exactly what it sounds like, a Lean office area with as few walls as possible. So imagine my horror reading an article in the March 2006 issue of Fast Company about a gentleman named Douglas Ball and his ideas for the cubicle of the near future.
The article cites a projected shortage of knowledge workers by 2009 as one of the motivators for new and improved cubicle design. It’s sad that companies think they have to attract talent by giving people a more comfortable personal working space. Would I rather have a sleek Douglas Ball-designed office furniture system than a bland and traditional cubicle? Frankly I don’t think I could work in either after working in an open office. The cost is simply too high.
In an open office the flow of information is much quicker than in one with walls. This results in faster learning and sharing of ideas, improved cross training, catching errors quicker, and a better understanding for everyone in the office of the status and direction of the business. Everywhere we've implemented the open office clients report that productivity improved by more than 30%. Space savings and quality improvements are usually greater. If you don’t value these things, fancy cubicles may be for you.
"NT is meant to undo the problems that bedevil workers consigned to open-plan systems, creating a sense of territory and privacy while maintaining the potential for collaboration." What exactly does “bedevil” the workers in these cubicles? What problem does giving people “a sense of territory and privacy” solve? Perhaps the designer went to the gemba, observed the actual process, and identified the wastes associated with working among cubicles to come up with these improvements. But I doubt it.
The statement “And it's designed to feel as appealing as the cockpit of a sports car--and almost as snug” gives you some idea of the target demographic of this product and the design-push mindset that went into building it. This system furniture is not necessarily designed for the job, it’s designed for a target hire.
The analogy for manufacturing would be that a “new and improved” batch and queue production system is designed because it makes the factory workers feel more secure to see a large amount of work in front of them. Even though this increases worker comfort, it is still a money-losing and inferior production system.
Herman Miller is coming out with this new and improved cubicle code-named “NT”. But caveat emptor: office furniture systems that place priority on personal territory at the cost of process flow will result in highly sub-optimized performance at best and dysfunction at worst for your organization. There is a place for space and comfort in the workplace, but design the process first around flow to enable best overall quality and cost performance. You can create a separate area with plush chairs, relaxation and comfort, when that is appropriate in the workplace.
What motivates Mr. Ball to make a new an improved cubicle? Apparently he is responsible for the original “system furniture” concept (a.k.a the cubicle) and he thinks he is making amends. Mr. Ball is quoted as saying. 'We've seen what's happened in the workplace. So much has been taken away from people--the office, the door, their privacy, and space. What we want to do here is give back.' Not to wish anyone ill, but if I could give the gift of walls, doors, privacy and space to all of our competitors, I would happily foot the bill.
With sincere apologies to Mr. Ball, here’s to hoping the NT project meets a quick and quiet death in a marketplace that values Lean thinking and Lean transactions.
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