What can lean manufacturing teach us about SharePoint?

Manufacturing companies work very, very hard to do one thing extremely well: eliminate waste.

It’s a principle called lean manufacturing and is driven by the phrase, “make obvious what adds value by reducing everything which does not.”

Ultimately, the goal behind it is to protect profit margins and increase quality — something all businesses should care about.

In manufacturing, this concept is pretty easy to understand. Manufacturing companies deal with physical goods, and “waste” is something tangible in that world.

The Digital World Yields Digital Waste

But what about in the digital world? If your company produces tons of documents, sites, and workflows in an ECM system like SharePoint, are you not also in the “manufacturing” business?

You may not be producing a physical product, but you’re producing digital goods which still have value and impact your bottom line.

Now to be clear, ECM as a business practice certainly extends beyond “manufacturing” information. It also covers aspects like controlling and archiving that information.

But the production aspect of ECM is certainly worth your attention because when you produce digital products, you also open yourself up to an undesirable side effect: digital waste.

And unlike physical manufacturing, digital waste can be a lot tougher to spot and eliminate.

But whether you spot it or not, it’s costing you money (additional storage and labor costs, higher upgrade costs, etc.) and is potentially increasing your risk exposure as well. That’s why it’s a problem worth solving. And that doesn’t even account for intangible costs like decreased worker satisfaction, which you incur when people have to sift through old/garbage information to do their jobs.

Common Types of Digital Waste in SharePoint

Digital waste takes a variety of forms in SharePoint, but for the sake of keeping things manageable, let’s consider four of the most common ones:

  1. Workflows which are inefficient (e.g. hybrid digital/paper processes) or no longer needed
  2. Documents which are old, outdated, or irrelevant
  3. Sites which are old, outdated, or irrelevant
  4. Tasks which are no longer needed

Arguably, all four of these fall under “governance” for SharePoint. In theory, your governance plan should address items like this with clear policies around how long items are kept and how their usefulness/value is determined.

However, in working with many companies over the years, our experience has been that most of them haven’t effectively addressed these items as part of governance. On the whole, their governance plans tended to focus on what not to do or how to get something approved. While that information is useful, it doesn’t address when something is no longer useful or is no longer efficient. That’s the “waste elimination” aspect of governance.

But it can be helpful to remember that governance is an evolving process. And if you had an effective means in place to identify and eliminate digital waste, you could use the output of that process to inform and refine your governance practices.

The Process: Identify, Decide, and Refine

First, you need to identify sources of waste like we’ve listed above.

To do that, you have three options:

  1. Buy a third-party tool which lets you identify those items in SharePoint.
  2. Build a tool/report/script yourself to do it. If you’re a smaller company or have a smaller environment, that’s a feasible option.
  3. Put a manual review process in place (which we recommend occur at least annually) to do it.

In all three cases, identifying sources of waste is only the first step. The next step is doing something about it.

Typically, that involves contacting the individuals who “own” certain content in SharePoint and getting a decision on what can be done with it. Ideally, that step is also built into your review process, and if you’re using a tool, it would be wonderful if the tool could jump-start that process for you by emailing content owners, asking for decisions, and tracking that for you. Even if the answer is, “I’m not the right person. Please contact Joe Smith in accounting.,” that’s still useful information. And if you’ve got a record of that decision where you can immediately contact the right person at your next review cycle, then that’s even better.

As you go through this process, you’ll begin to notice patterns, and that’s where you really want to focus your attention.

Identifying those patterns can help you:

  1. Adjust the criteria for identifying old/outdated/non-relevant content (i.e. potential digital waste) at your next review cycle.
  2. Adjust triggers/thresholds for what’s worth investigating and making decisions about.
  3. Record and periodically update who the content owners are for items of interest.
  4. Determine what can be automatically handled and what must continue to receive human attention.
  5. Reveal where you can be more proactive in the future.

Item #5 is a particularly important one.

When you first take a stab at identifying potential digital waste, you’ll have to make some educated or policy-informed guesses.

For example, maybe you put a trigger in place where any document older than five years shows up on a report for further review. In practice, you might find that certain types of documents aren’t so much tied to dates but to other factors like changes in federal law or industry regulations. In those cases, having a more proactive review cycle would allow you to “flag” those documents as still useful much sooner in their lifecycle, and they’d be eliminated from your search for digital waste.

On the other hand, you might identify that workflow tasks tend to be one of your biggest offenders. Tasks by nature are supposed to be transitory. They’re not meant to be permanent records, and if you need an audit trail of work that gets done, workflow task lists aren’t a robust solution for that anyway. So your findings in this case may reveal that you can delete completed or canceled workflow tasks at regular intervals, freeing up storage space and keeping you from running up against list size thresholds.

In essence, while this process starts as reactionary (running reports and making decisions on what you find), the goal is become more and more proactive until you can begin eliminating waste as early as you possibly can and can also shed a light on whatever may be generating it (inefficient business processes, SharePoint itself, etc.).

By using a strategy like we’ve described to identify, review, and eliminate digital waste in SharePoint, you can better contain your costs and — just like in lean manufacturing — “make obvious what adds value by reducing everything which does not.”