The Lean Journey: It’s in the Name

While attending a recent event showcasing the ongoing lean transformation at a local hospital, I was reminded of the meaning of “journey”. Those of us practicing continuous improvement for our personal benefit or on behalf of an organization’s mission often speak in terms of a CI journey, a Lean journey, service excellence journey, and so forth. People understand this to mean that achieving sustained excellence is a long process. It is also a way to remind leaders that it requires a long-term commitment.

For those of us not accustomed to constantly changing scenery, non-ending journey could seem exhausting. When we set out on a trip it is reassuring to have clear answers to questions such as… How long will it take? Where are we going? Who is coming along? What will happen along the way? How far have we come? How far do we have left to go? In a Lean journey, firm answers to these are seldom available at the outset.

Are we there yet? No, you are never “there”. When we realize it is a never-ending process of learning and improvement, the idea of Lean journey can be daunting. There is always so far to go.

There were many good lessons from the hospital’s experience. One is that the direction of a Lean journey requires a strong link to the organization’s mission. People do better with a vision of the interim destinations and waypoints on the journey as well as a realistic idea of where we are on the journey. Another key point was the recognition that the day-to-day process is both hard work is important work. Also, on the Lean journey our commitment is tested not in how well we set the annual strategy, or how we select and execute breakthrough projects, but in dedication to the day-to-day work of setting, following, checking and upgrading standards.

This last point reminded me of the meaning of “journey”. It’s right there in the name. The word “journey” comes from the Old French journee meaning “a day’s work” or “a day’s travel”. The one thing holding a Lean journey together is Lean daily management. It is how we decide what is today’s work, how we breakdown the larger long-term ambitions into what we can do towards it each day. To succeed at this, we need to see our work in a realistic and fact-based fashion. Day-to-day variation and factors we can’t predict will force us to reassess our plan, almost daily. Building these capabilities and habits requires not only education and practice but also attitude adjustments.

A day’s work may be hard. The journey may be long. There may often be roadwork delays. But the day’s work is important. Don’t stop believing, hold onto that feeling.

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