What does Jon Stewart know about lean?


Very little, actually. But he does know quite a bit about standard work.

His retirement last week reminded me of a post I wrote six years ago about the process he and his team use to write the jokes for the Daily Show. He explained to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is, and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized.
People say, The Daily Show, you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We've instituted—to be able to sort of weed through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do—we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.
I’m a real believer that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.

What I hear all the time is, "My job is different. I'm not like the admin staff processing invoices, or the mail room guy whose job is just to send out letters. My work is creative."

More creative than a team of comedians?

Even for something as creative as writing jokes, there's a structure to follow. And by establishing that structure, writers can unleash their comedy. Without it, they'd probably be a bunch of unfunny fat guys eating donuts and wondering why their show just got canceled.

Take another look at your work. Sure, you have to be creative. But whether you're a doctor in an emergency department, the marketing director for a tech company, or the coach of a professional football team, you can define a process and create standard work.

Of course you'll have variability: the doctor never knows who's going to walk through the hospital doors, the marketer doesn't know what customer will complain about an ad campaign, the coach doesn't know which player will get injured. But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. If you try to manage your work for the exceptions, you'll never get anything done. Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.

If something as evanescent as comic inspiration can leverage standard work, there's no excuse for you not to do so for your own work.

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