What We Talk About When We Talk About Overburden

By Jon Miller Updated on November 15th, 2015

Full inboxWe place high expectations on lean. Lean will make customers happier,  empower employees, enlighten leaders, spur business growth and deliver bottom line results. Lean can certainly enable organizations to accomplish all of these things. Yet there is a lot of variation in quality of lean practice, with the general consensus that only a minority of organizations sustain lean management long-term. What we expect from lean is nothing short of a complete transformation of how organizations behave. While lean thought leaders and practitioners have been continually expanding the tools, methods and ways of working with lean management, perhaps expecting all of this is another example of muri: an undue burden on the idea of lean management itself.

In lean, there is ample discussion of and focus on getting rid of waste and variation, far less on overburden. Whenever we place a load on something that is beyond its capability to handle, that is overburden. Examples include one-too-many boulders on a pickup truck that snaps an axle, farmland that is continually worked without being laid fallow, engineers programming software for dozens of hours with no sleep. The burden can be physical, mental or anything way that can be measured or felt. When a leadership team loads a fledgling lean transformation effort with too many of their expectations for improving performance without providing adequate resources, support and personal attention, that is another example of overburden. This is a common occurrence, but seldom recognized as such.

What we talk about when we talk about overburden is mainly overburden as the bridge between variation and waste. The received wisdom from Toyota is that because there is variation and variability, we try to overcome this by overloading or forcing our systems and processes to make up for it, and create waste in our processes as a result.  The original Japanese is more concise and has better ring to it: mura ga aru kara muri wo shite muda ga deru (ムラが有るから無理をして無駄が出る).

Getting a handle on variation is certainly an important part of removing overburden from systems and from our working lives. Dr. Deming framed his thoughts on management in what he called the System of Profound Knowledge. Lean owes much to the SOPK. According to Deming, the appreciation of a system requires grasping the interaction the three elements of

  1. Variation,
  2. Human psychology, and
  3. The theory of knowledge.

We talk enough about variation when we talk about overburden. But why does variation cause us to overly burden the system and the people in it? Answering this question of motivation is the domain of human psychology. There is no single answer. Presumably we respond to variation by trying to force way to success out of fear or desire. When we see a chance to increase our sales, we are motivated to take advantage and work long hours or push more opportunities into the sales pipeline, rather than accepting that we don’t have the capacity to handle to many. Behavioral psychologists might call this loss aversion. Fear also plays a factor, as we are often told to “make the numbers” by the end of the month no matter what, and place too much burden on ourselves and others in an attempt to do so.

Theory of knowledge, or epistemology, is the domain of how we know what we know. Much of the practice of the “gemba principle” such as visualizing performance, going to see, directly observing phenomena, listening to customers, and managing as much as possible based on data and facts, is directly related to skepticism, the belief that certainty of knowledge is not possible. In lean terms we can say skepticism is concerned with the quality of our hypotheses. We make decisions about what to do. We expect our decisions have some chance of succeeding. This is based on some combination of knowledge and emotion. Decisions are hypotheses, whether we call them or not. The results of our decision often reinforce how we think or feel about how we know what we know, right or wrong. Our beliefs can be correct or incorrect even without our having knowledge of the reason why. The best we can do is to continually refine and test our hypotheses, to check how well we are guessing.

When we don’t have good hypotheses, or the discipline to test and learn from being right or wrong, we are at risk of continuing to allow variation to and human motivation to guide our decision making in was that are wasteful. It is bad enough when we overburden ourselves. In terms of human psychology, perhaps overburden is how leaders fool themselves into thinking that they can get more than a full day’s work out of a person. When executives push more and more work onto their managers in the hope that more inputs will somehow equal more outputs, the cascading effect on the organization can be devastating.

This problem seems to be getting worse for managers in this digital age. Unlike the 9 inch x 12 inch wood and metal tray that sits on a desk, the virtual inbox has theoretically infinite capacity and will continue to fill up without overflowing. Our digital inboxes can hold thousands of messages, requests, files, follow up reminders. They can fill up day or night, whether we are in meetings or on holiday. I regularly hear from and attempt to counsel managers who return from a week-long workshop or management meeting and struggle to contend with 1,000 or even 2,000 awaiting emails. Trying to catch up with email overburden (if this is even possible) eats into time needed to meet, discuss, reflect, make good decisions, and improve. Invisible inboxes, invisible task lists, invisible burden, fooling leaders who place even more on people and processes into thinking they are in control of variation.

Trying to implement lean when one is personally overburdened is no fun at all. When we find ourselves working under the condition of chronic overburden, the focus of lean should only be to first remove this overburden. Ignoring it and attempting to add on more goals and projects related to lean is irrational and demotivating. Placing too many big hopes on lean is also unreasonable. Even with reasonable expectations, investing too little in growing people in the organization to succeed within a lean environment is also asking too much of people. What can we do when we find ourselves guilty of overburdening lean? Perhaps put less burden on variation as the explanation for why we try to do too much, as it limited but not completely eliminated within a system. We must also question how we know what we know about variation and its effect on overburden, and be mindful of how we respond mentally and emotionally to it.

  1. Yaniv Cohen

    November 19, 2015 - 2:45 am

    Indeed, rushing into Lean transformation is not recommended. One has to remember that there is a big transient between current state and desired state. This gap should be filled with control and dedicated thinking process.
    Thank you for the article

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