How lean is your own behavior?


Recently, I was struck by something that Bob Miller, Executive Director for The Shingo Prize said: "A culture of lean is present when the day to day behaviors of every person reflect a deep understanding and commitment to the principles."

I see a huge gap between this description of a lean culture and the culture in most organizations pursuing lean. In general, lean seems to be something that's done to something else, not to oneself. (If you remember your college Psych 101 class, this is called the "Other.") People are committed to making a process like strategic planning lean by moving to hoshin kanri. Or they apply lean to a production line by creating cells and pull systems.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course; that's required for eliminating waste and creating value for customers. But I'd argue that it's not enough. Lean also needs to be applied to oneself -- to the way we act and think.

Have you assessed the way you work recently? For example, have you tracked and measured the time you spend on value creating activities compared to non-value added waste? What percentage of your day is spent looking for information, or sitting in unproductive meetings, or simply figuring out what work needs to be done? How much of your day is spent writing or reading useless email? My guess is that most companies pursuing lean would never tolerate such ambiguity about value-added vs. non-value added in a work cell.

Another example: do you actively try to level the load in your workflow? Jim Womack has written persuasively about the importance of creating a "cadence" in knowledge work in order to avoid waste. In a newsletter last year, he wrote that

a development organization can only do so much in a given period of time and that it can actually get more useful work done if everyone is working at a steady pace. In my experience, the organization and the customer are better off with the latter approach, when a clear cadence is established for project completions and the cadence is maintained.

So how do you bring heijunka to your work? Most people I see don't even think about that: they take on more work than they can possibly accomplish without stopping to consider their production capacity -- something they'd never do when it comes to the production capacity of a drill press, for example. In so doing, they create all kinds of waste due to overburdening and uneveness: processing errors, forcing customers to wait, etc.

Some people and organizations do apply lean to oneself. For example, Jon Miller over at Gemba Panta Rei recently set up a white board to help with visual management of his knowledge work and avoid overburdening. He'll acknowledge that it's not the perfect system, but it's a start towards eliminating waste in his own work. The president of a small custom manufacturing company in Seattle that I know reduces the size of his desk each year in order to force himself to avoid excessive storage of inventory (documents). Kevin Meyer at Evolving Excellence has moved to a stand-up desk to improve efficiency and speed. (The whole story: 1, 2, 3.)  Jim Womack has set a monthly cadence for his newsletters. These are perfect examples of committing to lean principles in day to day behaviors.

Remember, a lean culture starts at home (literally and metaphorically). With you. What are you going to do to make yourself lean?

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