Roser, Christoph. “Taiichi Ohno’s Chalk Circle in the Office.” In Proceedings of the European Lean Educators Conference. Buckingham, England, 2016.
Taiichi Ohno’s chalk circle is well known in industry as an exercise to increase understanding on the shop floor. At a suitable location on the shop floor, a circle is drawn on the ground. The observer is then placed in the circle with the simple instructions to observe. Over multiple hours, the observer’s understanding of the situation on the shop floor deepens. This thorough understanding is the basis for any improvement project.
In administration, however, this approach meets some difficulties. Usually, the tasks are much more varied and much less standardized. Whereas in an assembly line each part is identical to the next, administrative processes have usually not (yet) reached this level of standardization. Hence, there is a much higher variety in the work content. At the same time, much of the administrative work is done using computers, and therefore is much less intuitive than a manufacturing or assembly process.
It is easier to understand a manufacturing process while watching someone assemble a product than it is to understand an administrative process by watching someone fill out forms and check boxes, as much of the value-add happens in the head of the clerk. Finally, in manufacturing there is usually only one process working on a part at any given time, and the processes are in sequence. In administration, however, multiple clerks can process the same document simultaneously, the sequence can change, and loops and repeats are common. All of this makes understanding the situation in administration much more difficult than in manufacturing.
The proposed solution is to observe for a longer period but to no longer be a passive observer as in the classical chalk circle. Rather, the clerk is asked questions while he works. This contextual interview greatly increases the understanding for the observer. On a negative side, these questions will disrupt the clerk and hence prevent reliable time measurements. A second option is to have the worker train the observer in the use of the process. This will yield even deeper understanding, albeit at the cost of even more time. In any case, for lean improvements in administrative settings, it is still crucial to understand the process before changing and improving the situation, and hence these detailed observations are necessary.