In the newsletter I wrote for Lean Institute Africa in 2015 I reflected on the growth in my understanding of lean as a result of attending the Lean Global Network meeting that year. I interviewed some of the delegates at this meeting and asked what they understood lean to be. My conversation with Joe Lee from Lean Enterprise China left me with many nuggets that I still reflect on to this date. One of the things that stood out was when he described lean as a “natural human approach to life”. He said: “Lean is just a name of a method… the objective of lean is to solve the problem between our capability and the customer need…it’s a lifestyle not a special thing.” He told me that people are solving problems daily in their lives, but at many organisations they are expected to leave this ability at the front door. I was challenged to look at how a structured lean approach could be helpful in my personal life, and what I could learn from it.
My lean lifestyle experiment began by chance one morning when I discovered I’d overslept and had just 15 minutes to shower, dress and pack for work. This may not be a problem for some people, but for me it was an issue, as I would usually spend over 30 minutes getting ready on typical work mornings. I quickly formulated a plan of how to fit the activities into that time and went on to execute the plan. Although I missed my target time by 5 minutes that morning, this experience inspired me to continue this 15 minute challenge on a daily basis for several months. Below are some of the lessons that I learned from this experiment.
- To initiate change you need clear purpose (or burning platform) and to sustain change you need alignment with personal values
On the morning when I started this challenge my burning platform was clear and I knew I had to do things differently since I did not have as much time to get ready as I would normally use. I left the house after about 20 minutes and although I was outside the target it showed me that I was capable of using less time than I normally would have used.
Over the following days and weeks I applied lean thinking to this exercise, and this led to continuous reduction of time. As the experiment progressed I got closer to the 15 minute target, but despite this improvement I started to lose the energy and enthusiasm for the exercise. The dominant challenge to the exercise was the voice that said: “Yes you improved and know that you can reach the 15 minute target, but there is no crisis anymore, so why should I continue with this exercise?” At this point I realised that I needed to find a reason beyond the fun of the challenge and my initial motivation at seeing the improvement. I was able to make the challenge meaningful when I realised it can support two things that I value – more time for pressing snooze on my alarm (more sleep!), while simultaneously arriving on time for work. Finding how the challenge enables me to achieve things that I value helped me to continue with the experiment.
- Improvement comes from understanding value and studying the work
It is not unusual that when people talk about lean the first thing they mention is elimination of waste, but in my experience it is not easy to identify waste without first understanding purpose and value. In this exercise my purpose was to be physically clean, be dressed in freshly laundered clothes, and to have all the items I need for work in my bag within 15 minutes of getting out of bed. Any activity not creating this target condition could be classified as waste, or necessary-but-not value-adding. I was fascinated to see there’s a relationship between some wastes, and also how some waste creates other waste.
In this regard, I first noticed that before getting out of the shower I spent some time washing soap off the shower walls. This was not a value-adding activity since it did not contribute to my purpose. I then realised that this was a consequence of another waste: I was applying excess soap to the sponge. I therefore had a combination and interaction of:
- waste of material
- waste of overproduction and
- waste of over-processing.
This changed when I reduced the amount of soap I put on the sponge and I therefore no longer cleaned the shower walls.
I also noticed that during the process of getting ready in the mornings, I made numerous trips between the bathroom and bedroom. As a countermeasure, I decided to bring some of the clothes I planned to wear that day into the bathroom which reduced my trips between the two points.
- It is very easy to get distracted – you need to create an environment that focuses you on the actual work and the target condition
I divided the work into separate activities and set milestone targets in line with the main target condition. The total challenge time of 15 minutes is not a long time, and the longest activity within the total challenge was limited to a goal of 6-7 minutes. I soon learned that despite my good intentions I could not hold my concentration on the work. In the first minute I could be focusing on the work and without realising, my attention would soon drift away. I would only find out that I exceeded my milestone target after the goal time had already lapsed.
To help me focus, I realised that if I placed a clock in the bathroom I would receive constant feedback on how I was performing against the set goal, and this feedback could refocus me on the target. In this case the feedback helped me to assess my actual performance versus the target and enabled me to take corrective action to regain progress quickly. What also became clear was that this feedback needed to be visual, current and easy to understand at a glance. This experience demonstrated the value and power of visual management in any environment.
- If you don’t record performance and standard procedures you are not effectively building on previous knowledge, which means every day is like starting all over again
I must admit that although I looked to use this exercise to experience lean as a lifestyle and at home, it had some limits. I was not motivated to advance to the level where I record standards which answer questions like: Which hand should I use? How many times do I need to repeat the action? For how long do I need to perform the action? When should I check for quality?
There is a saying that says: “The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory,” and yet for this experiment I decided to stick with my memory. I realised that each day was like starting again, since I could not remember the exact steps and actions that I’d taken previously. Recording information enables us to experiment efficiently. When you have a record of actions and results you are able to build reusable knowledge as you confirm or disconfirm your hypothesis each time you make a prediction and change.
My biggest lesson from this challenge was that lean thinking starts with understanding value and how value is created. Everything, including the tools we use or develop, should follow from the purpose at hand. On the basis of my experience I conclude that lean is a lifestyle. Will you give it a try? Or, have you also experimented with lean at home? If you’ve got some lean-at-home experiments to share, please let me know!
Lean Institute Africa Associate
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