The Lean Office Blog

Flexibility – Handling Hurricanes in Your Office

Today’s post highlights three necessary components of Lean office work needed to build a flexibility into your operation.

A family friend took off earlier this week with over 500 co-workers to head down to Florida in advance of the latest hurricane. As a lineman with the power company, his crew gets called up any time a serious weather event occurs east of the Mississippi. He’ll spend the next several weeks working incredibly long and tiring days, eating on the go, and getting entirely too little sleep. All of this to get the power back on for strangers who live several states away. How heroic is that? Seriously – next time you see a power truck on your street, stop and shake hands with the crew.


I wish I could hear a story like that and focus on the heroism involved. Alas, I cannot. My mind immediately focused on the incredible flexibility and efficiency of this setup, not to mention the extensive planning and organization that must go into making it a success. A sampling of the questions that came to mind: How do the crews from various power companies coordinate activities? How do they know how to work on power lines in another state? How do they get needed supplies like new poles, transformers, etc?

As I learned more about the phenomenon of Mutual Assistance in the power industry, I realized these concepts line up nicely with Lean methodology, and the strategies involved can work just as effectively the next time a “hurricane” lands in your office.

What’s an Office Hurricane?

In the weather world, hurricanes are large-scale storms with significant potential for destruction and, often, advance notice of the hurricane’s arrival. In an office, examples of hurricanes include a key employee turning in her two weeks’ notice, end of year accounting activities, marketing promotions for new products or holidays, or even a significant quality defect with one of your company’s products.

What impacts can an office hurricane have? Late or poor-quality outputs to your customers, longer, more stressful days for your team, and a serious hit to team member morale. And just like with real hurricanes, sometimes the real impact of the event isn’t felt until long after the winds have died down.

Handling Hurricanes – the Traditional Approach

In Pascal Dennis’ latest book, Andy & Me and the Hospital, he references the Law of Variation Buffering: “Variation in a provision system will be buffered by some combination of Inventory, Capacity, and Time.” This law is absolutely observable with a high-variation event like a hurricane. Without a Mutual Assistance plan in place, power companies have very few options in dealing with hurricanes. They can choose to either hire added capacity for the event, causing an exorbitant increase in cost, or tell their customers to wait (much) longer for their power to be restored. Neither of these is an attractive option.

Office hurricanes are typically handled in a similar fashion. Either we add capacity to handle it, or more than likely we push deadlines with our customers. Everyone scrambles to cover the extra work caused by the hurricane, often learning processes on the fly as they perform them for the first time. Many activities slip through the cracks because only one person knew they were needed, much less knew how to complete them. Often, people from other teams are scared to enter the storm, fearful of making things worse. There’s got to be a better way to handle this, right?flexibility-glass-half-full

A Lean Approach to Handling Hurricanes

In his book, Pascal does offer one corollary to the Law of Variation Buffering: “Flexibility reduces the amount of buffering required in a provision system.” In other words, if your operation can be flexible, it can absorb variation without requiring you to buffer capacity, cost, or time.

Rather than choosing between adding time or cost, power companies take this different approach of adding flexibility. While it takes a significant amount of effort to set up and maintain, it allows power companies to use outside resources to manage these one-off events without sacrificing lead time on repairs, and without carrying hundreds of extra resources throughout the year.

What would it look like in your office if you were able to manage hurricanes without suffering quality or on-time issues or keeping extra team members on the bench as buffer? What would have to change in order for that to be a reality?

Building Flexibility in the Office

Three key components that make the Mutual Assistance program effective for power companies will sound very familiar to Lean practitioners: standardization, cross-training, and management systems. These same three need to be a part of your plan for building flexibility into your office operations.

First, the only way flexibility works at all is if standard processes exist. If there isn’t a defined, standard method of completing work, how can you train others on how to complete it? We often talk about the benefits of standardization for setting a baseline for improvement, but there’s also a significant advantage when work gets tight and someone knows that our process for Customer A is the same process we use for Customer B.

Second, cross-training is an easy extension of standardization. If you have standard work identified and used across teams to standardize processes, it becomes very easy to cross-train your team. Many companies use skills matrices to visually demonstrate team members’ capabilities to flex between different positions. Regardless of the tools you use to manage this process, cross-training allows your team to feel prepared and comfortable when the additional workload hits.

Finally, who is coordinating activities and making sure the work is done in an effective, efficient manner? It’s one thing for thousands of trucks to show up in Florida this weekend to help out. It’s another matter entirely to have someone coordinating these activities, prioritizing the work, and assigning jobs to teams. In the same way, an office with an effective management system already in place will be much more effective at managing the added workload the hurricane brings.

All three of these components require a significant amount of effort on the front-end. Creating a flexible workforce requires proactive, thoughtful management and discipline, but when the hurricane hits, your team’s ability to absorb the work without impacting customers, your team, or the company’s bottom line will make it worth your time.

*A quick note on preventing hurricanes: This post focuses on how to better prepare for and handle the hurricanes headed your way. It’s definitely a worthwhile discussion to determine if there’s a way to reduce the frequency or impact of the hurricane itself. For now, we’ll leave that up to executive leaders (office climate scientists?) to address.

Our prayers go out to those directly impacted by hurricanes including Harvey and Irma. Stay safe out there!

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