Lean Thinking in the Law Office
In a recent Q&A video entitled My Projects are Hopelessly Disorganized. How Can I Get Them in Shape?, we made mention to something called “Lean Manufacturing”. This way of thinking, also known as “lean” for short, is a management philosophy derived from the Toyota Production System from the mid twentieth century. Lean thinking focuses on customer satisfaction, waste elimination, and continuous improvement.
Though the ideals of lean were originally intended to be used in manufacturing plants, they can be (and have been) adapted for use in almost any professional environment. Law is no exception.
Lean approaches can be applied to law firms to help improve efficiency and reduce costs of repetitive processes. Here are a few ideas for achieving this in your firm, and some resources available to you.
Don’t Make Assumptions
While it’s important to make money and earn a living, it’s also just as important to make sure that clients aren’t paying for services that they don’t need. Be proactive and ask your clients what they value and what they do not value. Doing so will enable you to cut out wasteful activities that may result in extraneous costs to your client.
Track Your Projects to Be More Productive
Using tools such as a Kanban board can help your law firm track projects and foster collaboration. A kanban board allows your team to visualize its workflow by use of cards and swim lanes, or columns. The simplest kanban boards are divided into three columns: “to do”, “doing”, and done”. Your cards (which represent your projects) are moved from lane to lane depending upon the current status of the project. For this, you can use a physical whiteboard with post-it notes, or create your board digitally through the use of sites like Trello, which are helpful if some team members work remotely.
There have been studies shown that people are more efficient at getting tasks done if they focus on only a few at a time as opposed to task switching on and off throughout the day. One of the main purposes of a kanban board is to force team members to put strict limits on how many items are in progress. They can have as many tasks in backlog as needed, but should only be focusing on a very small handful of tasks at any given time.
Each member of the firm should be encouraged to challenge the established way of doing things if they feel there could be some improvements. Designate “lean champions” to share ideas and enhance the overall quality of the firm. In order to improve, standards must be continuously improved. There can be no growth without change.
Opportunities and Challenges
For law firms, there are major advantages to employing lean thinking. There can be dramatic reductions in cost through waste elimination (sometimes up to 40 percent!) in legal processes. You can also see improvements in quality and consistency, which can drastically improve your reputation in the law community. Client services can be improved by a faster legal process, and the culture of your firm will be that of ongoing advancement.
In order for these improvements to take place, however, it will require a culture change within the members of the firm. Many will continue to do things as they’ve always been done, rather than follow one best process. While it’s true that the application of lean will challenge the existing beliefs and behaviors in your firm, it may be for the best.
Interested in learning more about lean thinking and how you can apply it to your firm? There are several enlightening publications that can help. Several books have been written about lean, including Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. This book explains the importance of creating value for the customer and supplies guidance on how to take the leap to lean thinking.
You may also be interested in reading The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, a New York Times best seller by Eric Ries. Ries focuses on ideals from lean manufacturing and includes validated learning and experimentation as ways to make progress. If your firm can afford to learn from its mistakes, then Ries’s book may be what you need to kickstart the productivity of your firm.