Ideas in Client Service: Lean Techniques for Law Libraries

By Monique LaForce
Corporate Intelligence Analyst
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

“The use of the term “Lean”, in a business or manufacturing environment, describes a philosophy that incorporates a collection of tools and techniques into … business processes to optimize time, human resources, assets, and productivity, while improving the quality level of products and services … [for] customers.”[i] Traditionally, Lean techniques have been applied to streamline manufacturing operations by eliminating waste from repeatable processes, but in the October 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Bradley R. Staats and David M. Upton authored a piece analyzing the application of Lean principles to knowledge workers.[ii]  Staats and Upton maintain that Lean principles can be applied to knowledge work, even though many aspects of it are not repetitive (unlike, say, an assembly line at a widget factory).  Staats and Upton argue that Lean techniques can make knowledge work (like that performed by law librarians) more efficient and more predictable, and thus, provide better client service for patrons.

While Staats and Upton discuss many Lean techniques in their article, a few that may be applied to law libraries include:

Eliminate waste in routine, repeatable activities. 

While each research project undertaken by a law library’s research team is unique, the process by which queries are received, logged, and disseminated generally has routinized aspects that might be standardized to eliminate waste.  Other law library processes could also be streamlined.  Are there multiple access points for reporting time spent on projects?  For example, in some law firm libraries, librarians bill their time via a time entry program, but also separately report on projects to a department head.  Could these processes be combined? Is equipment used by librarians and patrons located to maximize efficiency?  For example, in a law school library, are photocopiers located near collections that patrons must frequently photocopy (such as historic materials that are not available electronically), or are they in an area that requires users to travel long distances laden with materials for copying (and which subsequently need to be taken back by the library staff for re-shelving)? 

Make tacit knowledge explicit. 

Waste can be eliminated by ensuring that the wheel is not reinvented for every similar project.  Librarians implicitly recognize this by creating research guides or pathfinders.  Likewise, legal project management seeks to tame this area by creating timelines and decision trees for various legal proceedings (from real estate closings to complex litigation).  Commercial databases that gather data (such as information about transactions, or clauses in various contracts) and attempt to create accumulated knowledge also seek to eliminate waste, as do KM systems, which allow retrieval of past work upon which to base current projects.  Are there internal law library functions that might benefit from similar processes to avoid recreating past work?

Use communications effectively.

Effectively managing communications may increase efficiency in the law library.  In their article, Staats and Upton suggest, for example, that implementing guidelines as to whom to copy on emails can eliminate waste, by culling unnecessary time spend reading irrelevant communications — time that could be better spent serving clients.  Additionally, guidelines for the method of communication between librarians and patrons might also create more streamlined processes.  For example, it may be more efficient for researchers to refrain from sending results on a rolling basis, unless specifically requested, to reduce the volume of email requestors receive and the chances that results may be buried in the vast tide of correspondence faced by lawyers on a daily basis.  

 While Lean techniques are not universally applicable to knowledge workers, the fundamental idea behind Lean – elimination of waste – may be helpful in improving client service in the law library.  

[i] Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, R. Becker,

[ii] Lean Knowledge Work, B.R. Staats and D. Upton, Harvard Business Review, October 2011,  pp. 100-110.