Main Ask an Expert Member Information Home

Understanding Office Kaizen - Raphael L. Vitalo, Ph.D. and Joseph P. Vitalo

Office Work Processes
  • Types of Tasks and Work Settings
  • Differences Between Instrumental and Cognitive Tasks
  • Implications for Kaizen
  • Pre-Event Activities
  • During the Event Activities
  • About the Authors
  • Raphael L. Vitalo
  • Joseph P. Vitalo
  • Feedback Please


    Some people distinguish between “shop Kaizen” and “office Kaizen.” They describe shop Kaizen as applying to manufacturing work processes and office Kaizen as applying to all else. Kaizen has made powerful contributions to improving the productivity of manufacturing businesses, but now we need to achieve the same significant improvements in our administrative processes and the fastest growing sector of our economy—the service sector. How do we transfer the use of Kaizen from "shop" to "office" or service settings? We think the distinction of shop versus office misses the mark. The issue is not location or even industry; it is the nature of the work and the characteristics of the context in which the work is done. Adjust for these factors and you can realize the benefits of Kaizen with any work process by using the method described in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard.

    Office Work Processes

    Types of Tasks and Work Settings

    Psychologists distinguish between instrumental and cognitive tasks. Shop or manufacturing work processes are dominated by instrumental tasks while office work processes are dominated by cognitive tasks. Instrumental tasks are largely physical in nature and involve the manipulation of things (e.g., lifting, polishing, drilling, driving, sculpting). Cognitive tasks are largely mental in nature and involve the manipulation of data, information, or knowledge (e.g., planning, evaluating, or designing; counting, calculating, or imagining; deciding1, choosing, determining, identifying, detecting, judging, or selecting). The qualifier "largely" is used in both definitions for two reasons. First, no task is purely one or the other—wholly instrumental or wholly cognitive. Second, the performer may infuse an instrumental task with considerable cognitive components (see Exhibit 1 for an example).

    Exhibit 1. The Difference a Performer Can Make
    Hitting a baseball may seem a purely instrumental task, and, based on interviews, that is how Mickey Mantle approached it. On the other hand, Ted Williams approached the task very differently. Both players were exemplary hitters. Mantle was an intuitive performer who blended talent, practice, and strength to create skill and achievement. He could not, by his own admission, explain how he hit the ball; he just did. When he slumped, he would use trial and error to try different ways to break out of it. Mostly, he just kept trying and let things work themselves out. Williams was a knowledge-driven performer. He could explain in minute detail how he executed a particular swing and what swing he would use in a particular circumstance. If he slipped, he used his knowledge to detect the source of his batting problem and to devise a fix. Here are two performers executing the same instrumental task, yet one is infusing it with a great deal of cognitive components.


    Differences Between Instrumental and Cognitive Tasks

    Notwithstanding the exceptions a performer's approach may create, instrumental and cognitive tasks have important differences (summarized in Exhibit 2) and these differences are expressed in the work processes they make up. The most significant differences are:

    • Cognitive tasks are not directly observable,
    • Cognitive tasks produce different outputs,
    • Work processes dominated by cognitive tasks frequently lack standards, metrics, and feedback, and
    • Performer's implementing work processes dominated by cognitive tasks expect to be given more discretion in how they accomplish what they do.

      Not Directly Observable

      Cognitive tasks are not directly observable. By definition, cognitive work occurs in the mind of the performer. It may be tracked by documents, whether print or electronic, but mental activity is the substance of the work and that is not directly observable. This mental activity receives data or information and transfers or transforms it as a result of a series of decisions which are followed by some activity that documents or communicates their results. For example, a clerk receives an order for a quantity of a specialty gas like neon. The clerk must decide to what plant to route that order based on who the customer is, where the product is to be shipped, how large the order is, which plants can produce the gas, and host of other factors. When done, the clerk "routes" the order by physically pressing some keys on a keyboard, but the substance of the clerk's work was not the physical activity of pressing the keys; it was the mental activity of deciding how to correctly route the order. As another example, a technical representative for a software development company receives a call from a frustrated customer who is having problems installing their new software application. The technical representative takes in both the state of the customer (e.g., energy, affect, attitude, knowledge of computers) and information about the problem the customer is experiencing. The technical representative works out a solution and tells it to the customer. The substance of this customer service activity is not in the physical speech that shares the answer (as important as that is), but in the mental activity that concludes what the correct answer is and how to properly communicate with the customer. In both examples, the activity and result are not immediately observable. You must do something additional to make them observable. Usually, you document the decision or changed information or you survey your service recipient and document their judgments as to whether they were satisfied with the service they received.


    Produce Different Outputs

    Work processes dominated by cognitive tasks always produce information and, in service contexts, produce the changed state of a person. The service sector is the fastest growing component of our economy and this is one reason for the popularity of office Kaizen. Some examples of the changed state of a person are: a customer satisfied with the response to his or her inquiry, a trainee who can now perform a task he or she could not previously perform, a patient comforted by the nursing care he or she received, a customer who can now use your product to accomplish a new business function. In such service situations, the initial state of the person is one of the inputs to the work process and the final state is its key output.

    Frequently Lack Standards, Metrics, and Feedback

    In our experience, work processes that are predominately cognitive are far less likely to have precise specifications for inputs or outputs, work standards to govern their execution, or process and output monitoring that feeds back information on the quantity and quality of performance.2

    Performer Discretion

    Anyone experienced in doing process observations has learned that you always make sure you are observing the work process as it is supposed to be implemented. Indeed, when you walk out on a shop floor and ask someone to show you a work activity, it is not uncommon to have the question come back to you—"Which way, by the book or the way we do it?" Goal-oriented workers try to find ways around processes that obstruct them. Nevertheless, in shop settings, workers know that they are doing "a work around" and that it is not condoned. Not infrequently, the organizations within which office processes occur permit more performer discretion in how work is accomplished. They may not precisely define how decisions are to be made—e.g., what rating to assign a worker in his or her performance appraisal or when do you decide if there is no solution to the customer's difficulty in installing your software product. In these settings, workers tend to expect to be given more discretion in how they accomplish what they do. Sometimes, like in professional settings, they even experience it as their right or prerogative. Since frequently in these settings the performer is the judge of his or her own work, you can encounter a circularity that sends a service further and further awry from its original intent.


    Exhibit 2. Key Similarities and Differences Between Instrumental and Cognitive Tasks and the Contexts Within Which Each Is Performed


    Instrumental Tasks

    Cognitive Tasks

    • Predominantly physical materials
    • More likely to be precisely specified as to content and characteristics
    • Predominantly information which may be contained in a document or acquired by conversation
    • Includes the initial state of a customer in service processes
    • Less likely to be precisely specified as to content and characteristics
    • Predominantly physical products but includes some information output as well
    • More likely to be specified precisely with respect to form, fit, finish, and function
    • Problems with outputs more easily observable
    • Predominantly information which may be in the form of a decision, a document, or a report
    • Includes the final state of the customer in service processes
    • Less likely to be precisely specified
    • Problems with outputs less easily detected as they tend to be judgments not standardized by explicit rules
    • Readily observable
    • Predominately a sequences of actions
    • Not easily observable
    • Predominately a sequences of decisions which trigger actions
    • Performance tracking and reporting is embedded in the work process and part of normal management activity
    • Output is evaluated against an explicit specification
    • Performance feedback is frequently immediate and visible as the component either passes or fails inspection and the product is produced at its required volume and speed
    • Performance tracking frequently tied to personnel appraisal system which may not be formalized and, even when formalized, may not be implemented as designed
    • Output evaluation is typically a subjective judgment by a supervisor and may even be the worker's judgment of his or her own work irrespective of any objective measurements
    • Feedback, when it occurs, is usually global—not instance specific and occurs at a few set dates during the year
    Work Context
    • Detailed work standards more likely to exist
    • Production system is more visible as it is marked by work stations that have different tools or equipment arranged in a sequence that matches the flow of materials through the work process
    • Focus of performers is on output
    • Detailed work standards less likely to exist
    • Production system is less visible. Frequently a set of similar desks or work spaces with few cues as to the nature of the work or the flow between each
    • Focus of performers is more likely on process


    Implications for Kaizen

    The Kaizen process documented in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard requires only minor modification to accommodate the differences between cognitive and instrumental tasks (see Exhibit 3, Guide: Adjusting the Kaizen Process to Accommodate "Office" Work Processes at the end of this article). By and large, the steps remain exactly the same.

    Pre-Event Activities

    There are three milestones we complete prior to any event. We document a scope for the event, analyze whether the event makes sense, and prepare for doing the event. Little changes in these activities.

    We document the scope the same way and use the same form (Milestone A. Document the Scope of the Kaizen Event in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard). We prepare for an office event in the same manner we do for a shop prevent (Milestone C. Prepare for the Kaizen Event in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard). Obviously, we will not need certain equipment (e.g., hard hats, safety glasses), but our checklist handles both settings.

    While the characteristics of the typical office work setting do underscore caution and care as you evaluate whether doing a Kaizen event on a work process makes sense (Milestone B. Analyze Whether to Conduct the Kaizen Event in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard), you do not need to adjust the process itself. As you pass through the decisions you need to make about the appropriateness of the work process, the alignment of people, and the business case for the event, you apply the same knowledge in making this evaluation for a "shop" work process as for “office” work processes. We do find, however, as we apply our evaluation process that the typical office or service work process is less likely to be ready for a Kaizen event because its work process may not be standardized, have no measurements of their performance, and its people may not be aligned with respect to supporting such an event. When there is no documented work process, you cannot do the event. You must first build a standard work process and establish a baseline of experience in using it. Similarly, if people are unaligned with respect to using a standard, objective feedback on the results of their work, or changing how they perform their work, you need to address these “cultural” issues, not do a Kaizen event.


    During the Event Activities

    Exhibit 4 depicts the process we follow during a Kaizen event.

    Exhibit 4. Tasks Completed During the Kaizen Event


    We begin each event by introducing the event and doing an ice breaker exercise to get people familiar with each other. Next, we overview the Kaizen process, set ground rules for working together, and take care of administrative issues. Before building a detailed picture of the work process itself, the team completes a warm-up exercise in which members share with each other what seems to work well in their work process and what is problematic. This exercise gives us an opportunity to start thinking about the work process. It uncovers both the team's concerns and the concerns that team members have heard from other employees. We build a list of pluses and minuses with respect to how the work process currently operates, post this list, and used it as a reference during the event. None of these start-up activities change.

    Our first set of tasks focus the Kaizen event based on the facts directly uncovered by the team. As with all events, we have a strawperson direction (mission, goals, and a list of “do's and don'ts”), which we build before the event from a scope document and through preliminary conversations with key stakeholders. None of this changes. In focusing the event, there are minor adjustments in three tasks—building a description of the target work process, doing the walk through, and evaluating waste in the work process.


    Building the Description of the Target Work Process

    The nature of cognitive work results in some differences in the work process map you produce (see Step D1-S1. Build a Description of the Target Work Process, Kaizen Desk Reference Standard), but the process for building this map is unchanged. The map will almost always be multi-departmental, depict more decisions, and require additional documentation of the knowledge guiding those decisions3 (see Exhibit 5).

    Exhibit 5. Example of a Typical “Shop” and “Office” Work Process

    Decisions in a cognitively dominated work process are the equivalent of the critical material processing operations in a shop or manufacturing work process. Decisions constitute the activities of analysis and interpretation and direct the transfer or transformation of information or the execution of actions. Decision-making is the equivalent of the skillful actions of machine operators and craftspeople who shape with tools a raw or semi-finished material into a final product. The “tool” used by the cognitive task performer is knowledge, usually in the form of rules. For example, one task a personnel officer performs is to process retirements. As part of that activity, he or she needs to determine whether that worker qualifies for a pension. The officer begins with information about the worker including his or her age and length of service. The “tool” the officer uses to transform this information into a pension determination is a rule—let’s say the rule of 80. This rule specifies:

      IF the worker is at least 50 years of age
      and the worker's length of service equals or is greater than 30 years
      THEN the worker qualifies for a pension.

    By applying this rule to the information the officer has, he or she fashions a judgment which is the output of the officer's task.

    Apart from the heavy presence of decisions in the work process map, be prepared to document more information elements as information constitutes the major inputs and outputs of tasks in a cognitive work process. Our process already includes capturing this content as part of the descriptive information about each task. Just recognize that there will be more to capture.


    Doing the Walk Through

    The nature of cognitive tasks also requires two adjustments in how you conduct the walk through in your Kaizen event (Step D1-S2. Walk Through the Target Work Process, Kaizen Desk Reference Standard). The first adjustment is to your thinking as the event leader. The second adjustment is to how the walk through occurs.

    In preparing team members for the walk through, we teach them how to detect waste. We have added to our Kaizen Tool Kit (Version 1.3), a new exercise that uses only office examples of waste so that the practice team members do is directly aligned with the process they will walk.


    Adjust Your Thinking

    You will need to remind yourself that the forms of waste you and the team will observe in an office work process will usually involve working with information and especially the paper forms or software screens that carry information. Frequently, these forms or screens are poorly designed so that the sequencing and display of information neither coincides with the flow of work or enables speedy recognition of their contents, thereby causing search. Sometimes forms contain contents that are unnecessary and obscure the needed information, also causing search. Sharpen your understanding of transport as well to include moving information from one paper form to another or from a paper form to a computer screen. Consider completing incomplete information or correcting incorrect information as rework. Recognize that filling out forms or entering information into a computer screen is setup, but that entering the same information into multiple software applications because these applications do not “talk to” each other is unnecessary processing. Again, fix in your mind that, for office processes, information is the equivalent of the physical materials used in manufacturing processes.

    Relevant here is the question of how you categorize requirements documents and designs, as are used in engineering products whether physical (a new cabinet) or intellectual (e.g., a new training course or software application). Let's assume the case where the customer has not requested these as part of his or her deliverable (an unwise customer choice, in our experience). Are these examples of waste? Some people see them as waste because they are not requested by the customer and are frequently ignored by the craftspeople who build the product from their "sense" for how the product should be executed or use an iterative process called prototyping. Our opinion is different, especially given our experience in managing software development projects. When a worker ignores the blueprint for a part he or she is machining and "free-wheels" it, do we consider the blueprint waste or the performance unacceptable? (Let's assume that the blueprint is properly constructed and readily available.) If we find that the "blueprint" needs to be redesigned, we consider that waste (rework) and we fix that problem. We don't throw the blueprint. We see blueprints as "intellectual jigs" that enable correct performance the first time. We see prototyping as planned rework which we do consider waste (unless requested by the customer).


    Adjust the Walk Through Method

    The second adjustment to the walk through involves how it occurs. With cognitive work processes, you will have the performer do a “talk through” of his or her work, probably using the work process map as a guide. This is necessary since the worker’s operations are largely mental and therefore not observable.

    Evaluating Waste in the Work Process

    The mental nature of cognitive work also affects how you measure the waste in the target work process. Again, since many of the operations the worker is performing are not directly observable, you need to ask the performer to do introspective reporting. In this method, the performer not only announces each task as it is started but says what he or she is thinking and deciding as the task is performed. Introspective reporting makes explicit to observers what they cannot see— namely, the mental work of the performer. Otherwise, we conduct the evaluation task just as described in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard (Task D2. Evaluate the Target Work Process) and as we do in shop settings. We do measurements, observations, and interviews. We pool our information, analyze the amounts and sources of waste, and summarize our findings. We use the summary of our analyses the check the mission and goals we defined earlier in the day in order to see if our new information dictates that we alter either. If necessary, we modify the event's direction.


    Solving the Performance Problems and Acting to Improve the Target Work Process

    As Exhibit 3 indicates, there are no modifications to how we conduct either of these tasks. Altogether, our experience is that the adjustments to the Kaizen process are minor, at least when using the standardized approach specified in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard.


    Exhibit 3. Guidance for Adjusting the Kaizen Process to Accommodate "Office" Work Processes

    Kaizen Process4


    Milestone A. Document a Scope for the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
    • Pay special attention to Items B14 and B14a of scope document. These items document the interfaces between the target work process and other work processes. Item 14a specifically identifies organizations that must be consulted before the target work process may be modified. Work processes that generate information or service outputs are frequently back office or support functions and their content and procedures are sometimes controlled by the other organizations in whose service they operate.
    Milestone B. Analyze Whether to Conduct the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
    • Because work processes that generate information or service outputs are frequently undocumented and lack measurements, you need to be especially careful in evaluating the presence of a work standard and the inclination of management and performers to apply a standard and measure performance.
    • You also need to evaluate the presence and impact of software systems—specifically, whether these systems so constrain the target work process that meaningful change is not possible. It is not uncommon that waste within the target work process is a product of the design of software support systems yet control of the design of the software resides outside the work process.
    • Some work processes that generate information outputs or service outcomes occur over long cycle times because they are intermittent. An intermittent work process starts then stops between operations. The actual time spent in executing the process is much less than its cycle time. For example, a personnel appraisal work process typically has a cycle time of one year but the actual time spent in executing the process maybe no more than three to four hours total. There maybe a meeting to establish appraisal goals, a second meeting to provide feedback at the half-year mark, and a third meeting to provide final feedback and the appraisal rating. Pay attention to intermittence when evaluating whether the team can observe the operation of the target work process within the time available during a Kaizen event.
    • In evaluating the business case, consider not only the direct cost of operating the work process but also the cost of poor performance. We had an office work process that was small in total operating cost but because of its tardiness, it required the company to use expedited delivery procedures to meet strict timeliness requirements. Its products were being shipped internationally and expedited delivery resulted in a highly significant cost which the Kaizen event could eliminate.
    Milestone C. Prepare for the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
    Milestone D. Perform the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
      Task D1. Focus the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D1-S1. Build a Description of the Target Work Process
    • No adjustments are needed to building the overview of the target work process.
    • Be prepared to document more decisions in your work process map. Work processes that emphasize cognitive tasks are predominately a sequence of decisions which culminate in some action. These decisions are more complex and have a greater affect on results than the actions the decision's trigger. Document both what the decision is and the knowledge that should guide decision making. Be sure to note when there is no formal knowledge defined to guide decision making. The absence of such knowledge can have a significant impact on waste, usually in the form of rework.
    • The flow of processes that generate an information or service output frequently mirrors the flow of documents from input to output. For example, an employee might submit purchase request (an document) to his or her manager. That manager evaluates the request for relevance, appropriateness, and against budgetary priorities. He or she decides whether to approve the request or deny it. The document is updated with the decision and possible the reason and sent on to purchasing or back to the employee. You may find that tracing the path of input documents and the transformation of the information they contain into outputs is an aid in understanding the flow of work.
        Step D1-S2. Walk Through the Target Work Process
    • Your walk through plan will likely use "talk through" as a method for cognitive tasks in that you cannot observe these activities being performed. Much of the talk through may occur as you map the work process especially if you do a thorough job on documenting the knowledge that guides decision making.
    • You will still want to observe the work area in which the process is performed with a performer leading you through where each task or decision is executed and how he or she moves between tasks. You will want to observe any storage areas that are accessed, software screens that the performer must work with in doing his or her job, and forms or other media which convey information inputs or information outputs.
    • Apart from the adjustments just mentioned, the walk through process remains the same.
        Step D1-S3. Build the Mission Statement
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D1-S4. Set Goals for the Kaizen Event
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D1-S5. Define the Do's and Don'ts
    • No adjustments needed.
      Task D2. Evaluate the Target Work Process
    • Since the most significant work is mental, observing the performance of a task has limited utility. Modify the observation part of the evaluation accordingly. Consider using introspective reporting. In this method, the performer not only announces each task at it is started but says what he or she is thinking and deciding as the task is completed. It makes explicit to the observers what they cannot see directly—namely, the mental work of the performer.
    • No other adjustments are necessary.
      Task D3. Solve the Performance Issue
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D3-S3. Conduct an Experiment
    • No adjustments needed.
      Task D4. Act to Improve the Target Work Process
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D4-S1. Measure Results
    • No adjustments needed.
        Step D4-S3. Conduct a Pilot
    • No adjustments needed.
    Milestone E. Institutionalize the Process Improvements
    • No adjustments needed.


    Published January 2006

    Help Us Provide You Better Content.
    Tell us your thoughts about this article.
    Be sure to name the article in your feedback.



    1 "Deciding" is a very large category and includes actions like completing forms, interpreting codes or symbols, translating from one language to another, and many more. In fact, it is an essential element of every complex cognitive task including, for example, the ones we list above (planning, evaluating, etc.).
    2 These observations are less applicable the more the work process is related to matters of legal or fiduciary responsibility—e.g., accounting, purchasing, medical testing, or charting of the nation's waterways.
    3We have added a job aid to guide documenting decision logic to the Kaizen Tool Kit (Version 1.4 and later).
    4The titles in this column refer to sections in the Kaizen Desk Reference Standard.