Lean: it's just like backpacking.


As you may know, I've been spending a lot of time working with outdoor companies. My background is in sporting goods & the outdoor industry, and I'm an avid backpacker myself. Recently, I've noticed that building a lean organization focused on continuous improvement has many similarities with the backpacking ethos. 1. Multi-purpose is better than single purpose.  When you backpack, every ounce and every cubic inch is critical, so you look for gear that serves multiple purposes: zip-off pants (long pants and shorts); CamelBak's All Clear purifier (water purifier and bottle); backpacks with tops that convert to fanny packs for day hiking.  When you design a business process, you want to have people who can fulfill multiple functions: customer service agents who can take orders but also work in warrantee; marketing staff who can help with packaging; product developers and designers who can cross the aisle. This flexibility creates greater understanding, improves handoffs, and allows you to flex the workforce to meet sudden demand shifts.

2. A place for everything, and everything in its place. The lean principle of "5S" (essentially, everything neat, clean, and organized in its proper place, with no unneeded items) is critical in backpacking. You can't carry extra gear that you won't use; making and breaking camp is far easier when everything is in its proper place; and cleaning everything before going out is a great way of spotting problems or defects. The same rule holds true on a manufacturing floor or in an office: critical documents should be visible and easily accessible; you can work faster and with fewer errors when you have only the correct and needed information at hand; and you can spot problems or time-sensitive issues when they're segregated appropriately.

3. Flow When you're backpacking, you become acutely aware of issues that impede the smooth flow of camping life. How far away, and how do you get to, the water source? Where will you set up your kitchen? What's the process by which you'll set up your tent? Where will you hang your food? Of course, it's possible to make anything work, but when you're pressed for time, you want all activities to proceed as smoothly as possible. You want them to flow with a minimum of fuss, of rework, of back-and-forth trips to your backpack or your campsite. Similarly, when you're designing an office layout or designing a process, you want to think through the process to ensure that there are as few handoffs as possible, and that there's a minimum of travel time between groups. It's not catastrophic if the credit department has to walk 250 feet to the sales team -- but it's not ideal.

I'll discuss other similarities in a future post. In the meantime, what similarities do you see?

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