Applying Lean Methods to Personal Work

I’ve recently launched a new front in my personal quest for knowledge. Inspired in part by Dave Brock’s continuing series on applying lean principles to selling, I’ve begun dusting off some books I read years ago about lean production, total quality management, six sigma, etc. In fact, I believe that sales is an area that’s definitely ripe for more work in the field, and I’ve begun gathering additional reading material and notes for some writing and learning of my own on that topic.

However, as I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the topic, I’ve begun noticing applications in unexpected areas, and I’ve started thinking about how to apply those principles to my own work. Being self-employed, I am supposedly in complete command of what I choose to work on and when, so I should have everything organized and arranged for maximum personal productivity, right? Ha!

The lens of lean methods, when applied to your own work, acts like those chemicals that forensic scientists apply to a surface—all kinds of ugly evidence comes to light for all the world to see. Think about it, how much time do you waste in a given day? What percentage of the activities that you do actually add value to your end customer? Who is your customer? What are the kinds of waste in your own personal processes? Do you even have personal processes? Do you know what they are? Have you defined, measured, and analyzed your processes with an eye towards improving and then controlling them? Do you practice kaizen? How much variance exists in your processes? Do you practice exception management?

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

By the way, lest you think that last paragraph sounded a bit accusatory, I’ve started asking myself the same questions and I don’t like any of the answers. Since I figure the best way to learn a technique is to apply it to a meaningful cause, this series of articles represents my experimentation with the application of lean methods to my own personal productivity. We will look for—if not answers, at least approaches to answering these questions and more.


5S has to do with making sure that everything is in its right place and can be accessed instantly when you need it. It eliminates one of the most common (at least to me) sources of waste: looking for stuff I need when I need it.

I decided to begin with 5S because some of the immediate causes of waste were painfully obvious when I looked around my office space: a cluttered desktop with a mixture of business and personal work, old and new reading material, things I may need eventually in plain view while things I need immediately require minutes of searching, etc.

The first three S’s[1] are:

Sort: Organize your work area so that only the tools and material you need for that day’s work are out. This first step made the most obvious difference—I could see the actual surface of my desk for the first time in months!

Set in order: Arrange your needed items so that anyone can find them when needed. Since I work by myself, this might sound unnecessary; but I am a knowledge pack rat, constantly accumulating articles and other reading material I think I might need at some point, and then later forgetting where I put them or often even forgetting that I had them to begin with. I organized my materials by project and—although it sounds like overkill—actually wrote down where each resides. I’ve also started using Evernote to keep my materials organized.

Shine: Keep everything clean and neat. Don’t let things accumulate in the first place. I’ve gone through these types of cleaning frenzies before, and they usually last just a few days before one or two items begin to pile up and quickly reach a tipping point that opens the floodgates to a new accumulation. One of the toughest parts of shine is being ruthless enough in throwing things away. That article about swimming across Lake Titicaca that you thought you might want to use some day? Forget it—you can always find it again in the extremely unlikely event that you might ever want to come back to it.

I listed the first three separately because they have proved to be reasonably easy to accomplish in a short time. The next two are more involved and will take much longer to master:

Standardize: Create a consistent approach to carrying out my tasks and procedures. This is definitely worthy of its own topic. I’ve begun codifying some of the processes I use for facilitating certain types of consulting sessions, and I’m finding that the discipline and process of trying to write everything down is proving surprisingly difficult but providing a lot of benefits (much more on this later).

Sustain: This of course will be the true test. How do you take a good idea and turn it into a habit? It’s too early to tell if this will last. Maybe this series of articles will help me stay on track by enlisting cognitive dissonance on my side!



[1] I’ve seen minor variations of these words in different sources. These are taken from The Remedy, by Pascal Dennis.

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