Using Pull in a GM Office

You can effectively use pull-replenishment systems in the office to save money and help avoid shortages of supplies. Most offices use some form of pull system already. Nobody knows exactly how many pencils, erasers, or reams of paper will be used in an office. If there were a standing, scheduled order of all these things, you would guess right in some cases, have too much in other cases, and run out of some critical items. So, in a well-run office, somebody’s job is to keep the supply store stocked by looking and seeing what is used. You then replenish that.

General Motors has a Technical Liaison Office in California to organize tours of its joint venture with Toyota—the NUMMI plant. The first place GM employees see on their journey to witness the famous Toyota Production System at NUMMI is this office where some training is conducted. So GM made this a model lean office. In their case, the kanban system for supplies is very formal and they rarely run out of anything. There is a place for everything and everything in its place in the store, on desks, by the computer.

In storage areas of supplies, there are little, laminated kanban cards that say when they should be triggered. For example, when the aspirin bottle reaches one-quarter full, the aspirin kanban is put into a coffee can. They used to have a conventional refrigerator of soft drinks and some drinks were always overstocked while others ran out. Since you could not see through the door, it was easy to hide the mess inside. So they bought a big soda machine with a glass front and took out the payment mechanism. The glass front allows you to easily see the state of soft drink supplies. They put a variety of juices and soft drinks on marked shelves. When a certain soft drink gets to a certain level, you take the kanban for that soft drink and put it in a box so it will get reordered.

You might think a pull system in a small office might not be appropriate—it would be a rather elaborate system to maintain for the promised cost savings. You might consider doing a cost-benefit analysis to decide if it is a good use of time. But that is the traditional mass production thinking. The benefits may go beyond the pennies saved. The power of the Toyota Production System is that it unleashes creativity and continuous improvement. And it strives to seek perfection. So putting in these kanban systems is likely to intrigue your office workers, get them interested in improving the process of ordering supplies and ultimately finding ways to create flow in their core work. Waste in the office is generally far greater than in factories. A little creative effort to improve the process will have huge multiplier effects.