A Leaner Way: Lean Methodologies and Public Libraries

Cate Carlyle

Developed after World War II, and based on the writings of Henry Ford, lean methodologies have been widely accepted and implemented in manufacturing environments. Jeffrey K. Liker, a leading lean expert, summarizes what it means to be a lean manufacturer:

Lean is:

... a way of thinking that focuses on making the product flow through value-adding processes without interruption (one piece flow), a ‘pull’ system that cascades back from customer demand by replenishing only what the next operation takes away at short intervals, and a culture in which everyone is striving continually to improve.i

In recent years, service industries have begun to adopt lean principles and experiment with the application of lean methods in service organizations. Many studies exist which focus on lean practises to improve workflow, increase production and service time, value the customer, and create an egalitarian work environment which continually strives for improvement. This article investigates the application of lean ideals in a North American public library environment.

Lean Literature

There is very little literature available pertaining directly to public libraries and lean methodologies. The majority of the literature can be found in the business sector and focuses on lean methodologies to improve manufacturing and production. In terms of the service industry, many articles exist concerning the health care, financial and retail sectors adoption of lean practises. The literature reviewed demonstrates that lean practises, such as standardization, improvements in workflow, and lessening touch time, result in an increase in the quality of customer service.ii Starbucks U.S. incorporated customized equipment and investigated workflow to improve efficiency at individual outlets .iii These lean initiatives enabled Starbucks to cut service times thereby serving more customers and resulting in a 10% increase in accurately completed transactions .iv

Literature from the health care sector indicated that by standardizing tasks and streamlining processes, patient wait time was dramatically decreased.v In the financial sector, placing linked processes near one another and setting a common tempo by establishing a takt time (baseline time for certain tasks), halved average processing times resulting in more satisfied customers.vi By focusing on the areas discussed in the literature, possibilities for the implementation of lean initiatives in public libraries become apparent.

Organizational Structure

Public libraries have traditionally featured a top down, hierarchical management style. Within this hierarchy, directives come from the library board and top management, cascading down through the ranks to the staff on the library floor. In keeping with lean principles, selected current library literature and Masters of Library and Information Science management programs are encouraging a more egalitarian structure. In Library and Information Center Management, Stueart and Moran  espouse a “participative management” style which “involves employees in sharing information, making decisions, solving problems, planning projects,  and evaluating results” .vii Stueart and Moran’s people centered approach allows “decisions (to) be made by people closer to the action” .viii Library management and staff must begin to envision the back room and reference and circulation desks as the gemba (Japanese term for where the work takes place), with all improvements and information originating from the gemba; thereby inverting the traditional pyramid and placing importance on the staff in the workplace.ix

Cross training in a lean environment could also be beneficial to public libraries.  Ensuring that staff on all shifts are trained in all areas will limit the instances of work in progress (WIP) when staff are absent or on another shift. This will in turn increase turnaround time for new and returned materials as well as decrease touch times. Similarly, items needing repairs could be handled by more than one staff person instead of being shelved until the return of the staffer with such expertise. Cross training not only decreases WIP, it can also improve staff relations. The Grand Rapids Public Library discovered that “cross training has occurred so that people are able to back one another up as needed and keep materials flowing”. x

It is important to note that many public libraries are unionized environments. Employee unions must be involved in decisions pertaining to job descriptions and employee duties. Since many unionized manufacturing facilities have successfully adopted lean practises this should not prove an issue in unionized public libraries.


Workflow within public libraries is an area with the most potential for benefits from lean implementation. Initiatives such as kaizen events are a good starting point for organizations adopting lean practises. Within public libraries, staff would be organized into smaller teams in order to take part in these events. Initially, the event should feature a spaghetti map showing areas of workflow which are currently inefficient (resembling a bowl of cooked pasta). Teams then work together to create value stream maps (VSM) which feature more efficient standardized travel patterns for circulation duties, processing materials and back room tasks. Gemba walks involving management and staff walk-throughs to pinpoint problems and discuss solutions can easily be implemented in public libraries. Root cause analysis, in which employees evaluate the cause of problems and collectively create solutions, could also occur as a result of such events.

DMAIC (design, measure, analyse, improve and control) initiatives can also be implemented in various areas of library work. The Grand Rapids Public Library utilized DMAIC to improve their return processing times (Drickhamer, 2009).xi Grand Rapids staff created value stream maps which reorganized workflow and limited touch times and posted them on white boards for all staff. Staff also standardized check-ins with a pre sort by material type. In conjunction with the lean initiative FIFO (first in first out), staff  eliminated back room shelving to limit time between materials being returned and appearing on the library floor. Instead, wheeled pre-labelled return carts were created which are returned to the floor for browsing.

In keeping with lean principles, supermarket or storage areas and water spiders (a person assigned to circulate between the gemba and supermarket) can also be created in library back rooms. The supermarket area holds supplies, clearly labelled and footprintedFootprinting involves marking boxes with their location and contents and drawing an outline around the item to limit confusion or incorrect stocking. Water spiders on all shifts would be responsible for ensuring supplies are full at the beginning of each shift. These measures eliminate unnecessary time spent searching for pamphlets, labels, etc. while trying to serve customers.

Once again Starbucks implementation of lean practises serves as an example to libraries. Starbucks’ baristas moved items such as syrups and baked goods closer together and incorporated rolling racks to cut down on drink making times and steps taken, thereby increasing the number of customers served and decreasing time per transaction.xii Circulation and reference staff could move items frequently used closer together, such as new cards and de-magnetizers to improve work flow, decrease steps and improve staff health.  A Starbucks outlet in downtown Chicago colour coded bins for different types of coffee beans and placed them on the counter instead of underneath to reduce back strain and bending time as well as limit errors and time spent reading labels. This outlet saw an increase in their customer satisfaction score from 56% to 76% and an increase in transactions of 9%. xiii


One basic initiative to improve service in libraries involves the automation of circulation, printing and computer use. Libraries can increase customer independence, reduce wait times and theft, and free up staff time for larger issues, by implementing a card such as the Access Brooklyn Card.xiv Brooklyn Public Library staff found that allowing borrowers to book computers, print copies and manage their own accounts with one card improved efficiency and saved time and money. Libraries experiencing chaos as a result of heavy computer and printer use or with limited staff would benefit from such a system.

Standardization of signage and fixtures can also be beneficial to service. Signs that are uniform in size and colour across branches allow customers to quickly find items and personnel. Self check out stations that are footprinted at each location in a standard area will also allow customers to quickly and efficiently self serve if desired. Similarly, footprinting pathways to various sections of the library (as can be found in hospitals and retailers such as Ikea) will increase self service, thereby freeing up staff for more involved reference questions and improved customer service.

Reducing wait times and errors, and increasing efficiency as a result of better work flow and ergonomically correct practises will positively affect customer service. More staff will be available to assist customers thereby reducing wait times, independent customers will have the ability to quickly serve themselves, and more materials will be available as they will be processed in a timely manner. A happier, healthier staff will pass on the numerous benefits of working in a lean environment to their satisfied customers.

Cate Carlyle is Librarian/Instructional Resources Assistant, TESL Centre Library, Saint Mary's University.

i Jeffrey K. Liker. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 7.

ii Julia Hanna. “ Bringing “Lean’ Principles to Service Industries.Harvard Business School. http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5741.html (accessed September 24, 2009);

Microsoft Case Studies: Brooklyn Public Library.”Patron Access Management System Saves 75, 000 Staff Hours, Boosts Morale at Library.

http://www.microsoft.com/caseStudies/Case_Study_Detail.aspx?casestudyid=49222 (accessed September 25, 2009).;

Cynthia Karen Swank. "The Lean Service Machine." Harvard Business Review 81, no. 10 (October 2003). Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.

iii Julie Jargon. "Latest Starbucks Buzzword: 'Lean' Japanese Techniques." Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition, (August  2009): A1-A10, Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.

iv Jargon.

v Joe Aherne. "Think lean. (cover story)." Nursing Management - UK 13, no. 10 (March 2007). Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost.

vi Swank.  

vii Robert D. Stueart and Barbara B. Moran, Library and Information Center Management. 7th ed.(Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2007),  386.

viii Stueart and Moran, 389.

ix Masaaki Imai. Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense, Low-cost Approach to Management. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 14.

x City of Grand Rapids. “Lean Thinking.”  Gand Rapids Michigan. http://www.grand-rapids.mi.us/download_upload/binary_object_cache/lean_t... (accessed October 11, 2009).

xi David Drickhamer. “Using Lean Thinking to Reinvent City Government.” Lean Enterprise Institute. http://www.lean.org/admin/km/documents/a27e10bd-169b-4d4c-89e0-c38b83210... (accessed September 24, 2009).

xii Jargon.

xiii Jargon.

xiv Microsoft Case Studies: Brooklyn Public Library.