articleLeadershipLeanManufacturingOff TopicProductivity

Swimming With Alligators

By Steve Kane Updated on January 20th, 2015

Alligator swimming in marsh at Everglades National ParkBy Steve Kane

When I was a kid, I visited my dad at his office quite often. I remember he had a note on a corkboard that read “When you’re up to your [backside] in alligators, it can be difficult to remember your original objective was to clear the swamp.”  At the time I had no idea what this meant.

It’s good to be reminded of the fundamentals from time to time.

I’ve been working on process mapping off and on for a few weeks. What started off as an effort to better understand and document a process quickly turned into a vision of colorful, professional looking flow charts and diagrams.

I spent a few days searching the internet for just the right software application to create process maps quickly and easily. After downloading a free trial and going through some trial and error, I spent a couple of hours watching training videos to learn how to use this new tool.

After those few days went by, I had the software and some basic instruction, but no process map. I realized that I had invested a great deal of time into what I thought would help make the maps look good without creating a map. I had gotten nowhere.

All I really needed was a pen and paper.

I suddenly remembered Ron saying in one of his video segments “Use your wits instead of your wallet.” How many ways are there to say this? “Use creativity over capital,” “keep it simple. . .” I’m sure there are others.

I found myself more concerned about how the document would look instead of how it would work. Pretty (in this case) doesn’t add value for the customer.

I had overlooked a Lean concept I had learned from a mentor at the Northern Michigan Lean Learning Consortium. The idea is this: simple, visual and manual first.

Avoid the temptation to go straight to a computer to do something that can be done with pen and paper.  There’s a lot to be gained from manually writing, drawing, diagraming, scratching out and diagraming again.

Keep focused on your objectives despite your distractions.

Don’t put any more effort into an idea than is necessary to simply make it work.  Improve if necessary and stop at the point you no longer add value from the customer’s point of view.

Don’t wrestle alligators.  Get out of the swamp.


  1. Bob

    January 22, 2015 - 9:53 am

    There will always be applications better suited for a simple pencil, paper, and as needed an eraser. This allows your creative effort to be focused, front, and center on the real objective. If needed you can make it pretty later with no-brainer apps like “Power Point”. If the process is fluid and subject to update, tracking, and end user input, then consider converting to something more sophisticated. When you are seeking buyin for a new process I prefer to use a simple hand drawn “strawman” that focuses the participants to think about process validity, make changes, get consensus. I have found that starting without a “Strawman” leads to wasted time with participants going off in different directions and too much input from alpha types and not enough from knowledgeable participants hesitant to challenge the alphas.

  2. Ted

    January 22, 2015 - 12:13 pm

    Software will only help you after you have doen the legwork yourself or with the team. Redecorating wall eg. any kind of paper on the wall and drawing the current state, having something where with a few steps back you can see what you are actually trying to do to the people who work the process, helps thousand times more, than any kind of software.
    Having people manual walking their! process helps them understanding what the do to the others and make them think why are we doing this.

  3. Sergei

    January 23, 2015 - 6:13 am

    It is true only when you are working alone. If you have to exchange maps with your coworkers, insert flow chart in a presentation or report to boss, you’ll understand that was not a waste of time but investment. Poor unreadable flow charts created with pencil and rubber actually eat time and performance. We are not any more Deming’s Japanese workers of the 50’s.

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