Productivity - Success

Applying Lean Methods to Personal Work: Define Customer and Value

Which one is the customer?

In the first two articles of this series, we examined ways to make work easier using 5S and by making work visible. Later this week we will turn to a much harder topic: reducing waste. But before we do, it’s important to clarify two definitions.

The lean principles term for waste is muda, and it technically refers to any activity that does not add value to the end customer. So, to be precise with our terms, before we can identify waste we must first specify who is your customer(s) for your personal work, and what constitutes value to them.

Who is your customer for your personal work?

First, let’s define “customer” as anyone who depends on the output of your work.

The first customer is yourself. That sounds obvious on the surface, but some people need reminding of it. If you are a caregiver to an elderly parent for example, it’s all too easy to work yourself to exhaustion and ill health by focusing all our energy on him or her. You have to leave something for yourself.

At the same time, you also have an obligation to your future-self. While this is obvious, it helps you to define value and to distinguish between the urgent and the important, in Stephen Covey’s phrase. When you eat less today, or invest some of your income rather than spending it, you’re adding value to your future-self. Any time you devote efforts toward a long term goal, you are building value for your future-self. Keeping your future-self more prominent in your mind guides some of the choices you make today and improves impulse control. Think about it this way: You are now the future-self that “existed” years ago. How many times have you wished you had done more of something when you were younger? (I wish I had saved more money, or made more cold calls, paid more attention in class…)

Future focus is what allows you to make the hard choices to forgo short-term advantage for long term positioning. Robert Caro tells us how a young Texas congressman, who was so poor in 1940 that he had just recently been able to afford his first suit that fit, rejected a very lucrative offer of a partnership in the oil business from a wealthy benefactor. His decision wasn’t based on ethics (as proven by many other questionable deals he later became involved in), but on his future plans. He was concerned that being tied to oil money would hurt him politically. Since oil money was not a disadvantage in Texas, there was only one potential job where it would matter, and 32-year-old Lyndon Johnson gave up certain and immediate wealth for an extremely improbable dream.

Unless you live on an isolated island, there are probably others who depend on the output of your work.  In my own case, I have decided to define three customers: myself, my family, and those who pay my bills (my clients). These are not totally separate—taking care of my clients boosts income which adds value to myself and my family; improving myself by learning helps my clients; becoming more efficient in my work makes me easier to live with and allows me to spend more time with my family, etc. This is important because greater alignment of interests and needs among all your customers is a wonderful source of synergy.

What is value to your “customer”?

Value will be highly personal. Donald Trump and Mother Teresa would probably define it differently. Some are driven by wealth, others by power, by artistic achievement, by religion, and so on. Only you can define it, but define it you must.

My personal definition of value is anything that makes me richer, smarter, healthier, or happier. (I see the latter two as being  more related to personal life than work, so I will spare you the details in this and future articles.)

Fortunately, because I’ve chosen a career that allows me to monetize my passion for learning, the first two are very well aligned. It’s not always that way—sometimes your different definitions of value may conflict and you must make additional choices about priorities and balance.

By definition, then,  muda in my personal work comprises any activity that does not make me richer or smarter. In the next article of this series, we will look at the most common sources of waste in personal work and countermeasures to reduce muda.

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