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  • Writer's pictureLorenzo Colombani

What’s Lean Anyway? Part 1 (in 3 min or less)

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

What is Lean?

You may have heard Lean in many contexts: lean management, lean thinking, lean manufacturing. Lean describes a process that minimizes wasting (time, energy, goods).

For instance, Frequency-based Organization (on which I wrote previously) is a way of organizing your files designed to minimize wasting time looking for items you need in the here and now, at work or home.

In a lean kitchen, like that of a chef’s mise en place*, you don’t need to look for that huge, sharp knife you use to chop large vegetables. You know where it is and you just reach for it. How is that different from any kitchen at all, you'll say? Even in your own kitchen, I bet that you sometime look in the wrong drawer before remembering that the nice set of silverware is stored in the bottom drawer, not in top drawer with everyday wares. That’s it, though: you had to think about it. You took two steps instead of one to get what you need. Maybe that was 5 secondes. Maybe a minute or two. Now, multiply that by the number of times it happens (in your kitchen, at the office looking for a file or asking a colleague about a deadline you don't remember). You get my point.

Lean is a process that makes thinking about what you’re doing unnecessary, or reduces it to the minimum.

In business jargon, it’s an frictionless workflow.

Why is Lean important for my business?

"Business comes first”. But that doesn't mean prioritizing client-related work to optimizing workflow. A mentor of mine once told me “business comes first must includes process optimization”.

In A World Without Email (what a dream it would be!), Cal Newport differentiates work from workflow. Work is what you do (designing buildings). Workflow is how you get from start to finish (first you meet with the client, discuss expectations; you work on a prototype; you schedule multiple meetings to check in with the clients and contractors; you start over because the client didn't like the prototype; etc.).

The rationale is simple: the less time you waste in workflow sinkholes (having 10 people proofread a 2 minutes speech for 3 weeks), the more time you spend on added-value activities for the client (designing buildings). You are leveraging workflow for better, more work.

That’s because if you spend half an hour looking for a document your client asked, that’s half an hour you don’t spend working a another project or just relaxing. That’s half an hour wasted. That may not be much, and you may meet the client’s deadline (get payed, get other contracts ). Question is: have you quantified all those half hours your wasted looking for stuff? And what could you have done with that time instead? (Invisible opportunity cost calling!).

As a rule of thumb, safely increase whatever ballpark figure you come up with when assessing the time you waste on trivial tasks at least threefold.

Do you need lean?

  • If your database overflows with old stuff or your folders are cluttered with subfolders you haven't opened for a year

  • If you have more e-mail folders than you can count and a "to read" additional mailbox where you drop what's not immediately urgent -but you never read that mailbox

  • If the stuff you actually need is buried deep into 6 layers of subfolders.

  • If you work in another industry -let’s say, you’re a plumber-, and you spend more than 20 seconds looking for the tool you need

  • Or if you’re always late on bills, quotes, in sending invoices and so on

Then yes, you need to lean up and this is why we're here.

The way I currently work is good enough for me. Why would I want Lean?

There is wisdom to that objection. In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman warns us about the legacy problem. When you try replacing a process with a new one without taking into account the people who used to the former, the new process is misused or rejected. Why? Probably because it does not take into account the psychological strain it puts on people who have been used to working one way for years, sometimes decades (and often with a reasonable measure of success), and are suddenly asked to jump into the unknown for no good obvious reason.

Yet there is still hope.

The benefits of lean are undeniable. If your workflow has been "good enough" but people often complain about the same problem, and you want a lean solution, you'll have to design for change in addition to designing your your new process. Say your HR department uses paper forms to count sick days. And say law authorizes for email notices instead, which are then fed into an automatized HR software.

Jumping right to the HR-softwary solution might not be good design for your firm. A first step might be to digitalize papers forms -make a fillable PDF template that everyone has access to easily and that's pre-filled wherever no personal information input is required. Then have people print it or send it by email, depending on your HR's representative tastes.

So yes, you probably need lean, but no, you shouldn't implement all its tenets at once and dogmatically. TBC.

Stay tuned for applied lean cases next week!


* Example from Daniel Markovitz’ excellent book, A Factory of One

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