How To Live Your Life the Lean Way



“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker

Efficiency.  Effectiveness.  Elegance in action.  That’s the Lean way.

I’m a fan of borrowing principles, patterns, and practices where I can from other disciplines, to improve whatever I do.

Lean is a production practice, largely from Toyota’s manufacturing approach, focused on less work, better results.

It’s a way to achieve efficiency, effectiveness, and elegance in action.  Lean is a great discipline with a rich history and proven practices to draw from.

If you want to tune your work or life, take a look at Lean, and if you’re a minimalist, Lean is right up your alley.

A Lean Way of Life

To lean down on things, I focus on reducing waste in my life, while flowing value.

I flow value to myself, to others, to my work.

By focusing on the end-to-end flow, I get the kinks out, reduce friction, and spend my energy in more meaningful ways.

Rather than get things done through heroic efforts, I have the system on my side.

Lean in a Nutshell

Lean is focused on eliminating waste (think “leaning down.”)  In terms of Lean, waste is spending energy or resources on any goal other than value for your end customer. 

If you’re applying Lean to your life, that customer can be you. 

My colleague James Waletzky has shared a lot about applying Lean principles to software engineering. 

I think he summarizes a key concept very well:

“You let quality drive your speed by building in quality up front and with increased speed and quality comes lower cost and easier maintenance of the product moving forward.”

The 4 Goals of Lean

The four goals of Lean are:

  1. Improve quality
  2. Eliminate waste
  3. Reduce time
  4. Reduce total cost

The 7 Key Principles in Lean

James writes about 7 key principles in Lean:

  1. Eliminate waste.
  2. Focus on learning.
  3. Build quality in.
  4. Defer commitment.
  5. Deliver timely.
  6. Respect people.
  7. Optimize the whole.

For me, optimizing the whole is a key one.  I don’t want to optimize the little things, when bigger things are getting in the way, and make more of a difference.

I think the trick with any principles is knowing when to use them and how to apply them in context.

Defer Commitment

James gives an example of how Toyota defers commitment until the last possible moment:

“Another key idea in Toyota’s Product Development System is set-based design. If a new brake system is needed for a car, for example, three teams may design solutions to the same problem.

Each team learns about the problem space and designs a potential solution.

As a solution is deemed unreasonable, it is cut.

At the end of a period, the surviving designs are compared and one is chosen, perhaps with some modifications based on learning from the others – a great example of deferring commitment until the last possible moment.

Software decisions could also benefit from this practice to minimize the risk brought on by big up-front design.”

At Microsoft, I see deferring commitment all the time.

I see teams prototype multiple solutions to a problem and then pick the best fit.

The anti-pattern that I’ve seen is committing to one path too early without putting other options on the table.

The 7 Types of Waste in Lean

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota’s Chief Engineer, identified the following “seven wastes”:

  1. Defects (don’t meet the expectations)
  2. Inventory ( more inventory than you need for current demand)
  3. Motion (extra steps due to inefficient layout)
  4. Over Processing (rework and reprocessing)
  5. Overproduction (occurs when production should have stopped)
  6. Transport (unnecessary movement of materials)
  7. Waiting (periods of inactivity)

I think reducing wasted motion is especially interesting.  This is where you can really focus on your deliberate practice or Kaizen.

Economy of motion is the name of the game.

I’ve heard that swimmers that break new records, complete their performance in less strokes than previous records.

As their performance goes up, the strokes go down, as they improve their efficiency and effectiveness of their technique.

How can you use Lean principles in your efforts?  … your organization?  … your life?

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  1. I like it JD. The simple way of living, in an increasingly complicated world. I see all around people who focus on doing things right, instead of doing the right things. They’re efficient, but not effective. And at the end of the day, this has certain costs.

  2. Eliminating waste has proven to be most effective practice. It sort of resonates with deferring too – it’s not letting waste in from the start 😉

  3. @ Eduard — It’s the same thing I see when folks want to do “more” or “scale.” I have to ask why or more of what or where’s the real bottleneck?

    @ Alik — There’s nothing like cutting the dead wood. When you can spot waste up front that’s good, but I tend to find it creeps in over time. That’s why I do periodic sweeps. It helps me get the lead out.

  4. Another wonderful post here. I have found that most of my success has come from eliminating and letting go of all the static noise that isn’t serving me anymore. When I cut out the stuff that isn’t working it allows a more simple approach that really does begin to work.

  5. Great post! My company’s motto is actually Work Smarter, Not Harder. I remember once a story told by my uncle. There was this woodcutter who cuts wood daily (obviously) using an axe. One day, he got out and bought this automatic saw (I forgot what’s it’s called). After that, he went out to the woods, and then he tried to cut some wood. But the saw he bought wasn’t working for him. Next day, he went back to the shop and complained. And then the sales person said, “did you turn it on?” And then the woodcutter realized he hadn’t. So he got out into the woods and tried again. He turned it on and used the saw but he used it the way he used the axe (which isn’t how you’re supposed to use it). So, he went back to the shop and complained again…And well, I think you get my point now. No matter, how hard you work, if you’re not being smart about it, it will never work because you’re doing it wrong. Maybe you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. Times like these, you need to think back and meditate. Figure out things and solutions. Maybe you just have too much crap you need to throw out. Sharing an inspirational article article to help you find calm and help you become lean and efficient.

  6. Reduce time is what I am working on. Another great post,JD, to help us become our best selves.

  7. great post!
    just one thing, I’ ll say instead of deliver fast … deliver when is the right/best time/place to do it
    speed is not all sometime

  8. Hi J.D! Very nicely organized and presented! No matter I tend to be a bit skeptical,since working with Ackoff,I and my colleagues were heavily involved with Lean thinking. The Wharton people are telling me that somehow things seem not to be working any more as they used to,because of “Interactive complexity.” What seems to be going on has
    no clear explanations and this resulted in Toyota’s recent failures. Most people react as the a Man that encountered a huge stone on his path
    and couldn’t move on.He started shouting different words at the stone,
    but the stone wouldn’t move. When he was approached by a horseman, he complained that the words that were supposed to work out wonders, were of no practical use. The horseman got off the horse, tied the stone and pulled it using the horse, off the road.This is something different –exclaimed the Man. No – it isn’t said the horseman. – Words are still stronger than anything in the world. You told me,that the stone is in your way and I removed it.
    But when you are frowning words away in the wind,nothing will ever get done.

    It is obvious that in cases like this one, a new mindset has to be developed,as to cope with the completely new circumstances that have arisen. Unfortunately most people sleep and dream (in closely the exact sense of the word), although with eyes wide open ..

  9. Hello J.D. –

    My mom always taught us that learn good habits, good practices from any one you can. And there is no age limit for doing so. She is a teacher and she believes there is always room for improvement.
    When I take sessions I realize each time and thank god for a wonderful Mom.
    Following basic principles Toyota have the best selling cars around the world. AMAZING.

    Bye for now,

  10. @ Baker — very nice reflection — cutting out the noise, leads to a refined approach, and makes more room for things that work. Thank you.

    @ Megan — Your Uncle’s story really shows how, not only do you need the right tools for the job, you need to use them the right way. That’s the key to working smarter. Thank you.

    @ Lana — Reducing time is one of my favorite points of focus. It’s one of the best ways to prioritize, make room for other things you enjoy, and innovate in how you already do what you do. Thank you.

    @ Stefano — You’re right, I changed it to deliver “timely”. I originally contemplated whether fast simply meant, as fast as possible, without haste, without overhead, and with quality. Thank you.

    @ Michael — That darn stone! Words are powerful, and that perfectly illustrates to ask the right thing, of the right person. On Toyota, it’s a complex world and things will go wrong. I think it’s a great reminder to have effective feedback loops up and down the change, and a way to respond over react, when things go wrong. I can easily imagine the checks that get added up stream to prevent similar mistakes downstream.

    If I were to summarize one mindset shift I see in people that’s working, it’s shifting from trying to get it all right up front, to learn and respond.

    @ Cheryl — That’s great wisdom in action. I’m a fan of learning from everyone, and I spend extra effort to learn the super skills from the best of the best.

  11. I am too efficient…I get going on the goal and I miss the meaning…I have to stop being a lean, mean, thinking machine…

    I am feeling guilty that I did not stop and write down the fun and clever things my children did when speaking and growing….I wish I had…nope I was lean and efficient….

    In other areas now that I regret….

  12. Hi JD .. I like the Lean approach .. people seem to believe they know the solution, but actually haven’t evaluated the problem .. and so impasse somewhere along the way is bound to happen, with the added delays and inefficiencies that will arise – headaches for staff, irritation for customers etc etc

    Re my life .. I’m having to declutter and down size, but actually catching my tail has been a good start, and the rest is following on. Action – do one thing, the most important and necessary for the day, then do the next .. and slowly the whole starts to come together – thank goodness … no more floundering around – doing ok .. but only ok!

    In a couple of months I’ll be one lean machine – then I can concentrate on the not-so-lean body .. and get that back down to leanness too ..

    Your sentences at the end are so true “By focusing on the end-to-end flow, I get the kinks out, reduce friction, and spend my energy in more meaningful ways. Rather than get things done through heroic efforts, I have the system on my side.” Yes – I feel that .. it’s coming together ..

    Have a good week & thanks .. Hilary

  13. @ Patricia — Turning goals into compelling stories lets you write your way forward, and make meaning. It takes practice, but it’s *worth* it 😉

    @ Hilary — Leanness is goodness 🙂 It’s amazing what some consistent, focused action can produce … one thing at a time. Getting the kinks out and spending your energy on meaningful things is a rewarding path, that builds momentum … and that momentum spreads.

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