Five Lean Questions for Rethinking Work

By Jon Miller Updated on November 1st, 2021

The pandemic has caused many people to rethink their relationship to work. A record number of older workers are retiring early. More mid-career people are starting their own businesses. Both new and veteran members of the workforce are taking longer stretches of time to reflect before accepting their next job. Many people are deciding that they value flexibility above the traditional draws of a job, such as high pay or status.

A Wall Street Journal article explored these themes and the real meaning of freedom at work. The author argues that real flexibility is having the autonomy to choose your people, your purpose, and your priorities. He encourages employers to meet potential employees where they are in their process of rethinking work by asking, “What old constraints should we try removing, and what new freedoms could we test?” Building on these ideas, here are five questions for rethinking work from a lean management perspective.

1. How Can We Visualize the Status of Remote Work?

At the most practical level, there is the question of how to manage work in virtual and remote environments. For many years, global or geographically dispersed organizations have done this through a combination of conference calls and periodic face-to-face meetings. As working from home becomes widespread, organizations are being forced to adapt. For those with an established daily management system, it’s a question of transferring their visual routines of daily check-ins by remote team, virtual gemba walks, leader standard work, etc. to digital platforms. Organizations not familiar with daily management systems can take this opportunity to build a virtual one.

2. How to Keep Remote Team Members Connected?

Another way to phrase the first question is, how do we keep team members connected? Today, information technology connects us via text, phone, email, video, virtual workspaces, and other ways. Technology is necessary but not sufficient for keeping remote team members connected. A benefit of working remotely is setting our own hours, working at our own pace or convenience. However, when we can’t see how others are working we may find ourselves working ahead, lagging behind, batching tasks, or otherwise not making work flow.

Part of what a daily management system adapted for virtual work does, is to create a shared work cadence for team members. This may be a simple as meeting once per day or week. It may include more detailed rules for when to be available, when to focus on tasks and when to exchange bursts of communication. There’s much more to this question than work-related information flow. Organizations are recognizing that another important part of this question is, “How to keep team members connected with each other socially, as well as with mentors and influencers?”

3. How to Do More with Less?

The article identifies two types of liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from obstacles and interference from others. Positive liberty is the freedom to control one’s own destiny. The author proposes as the biggest source of positive liberty, “the freedom to decide when and how much we work.” The article asks, “Would we see better results—and higher quality of life—in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours?” It’s a basic tenet of lean thinking that the majority of time we spend at work is wasteful, rather than value-added. In lean thinking, removing waste, burden and undesired variation is the key to creating greater value for ourselves and for those we serve.

There is nothing natural or objectively good about the forty-hour work week. It’s simply a compromise number that labor unions, industrialists, and regulators arrived at many decades ago. If people can be more productive working fewer, more focused hours, the future of work may not be five eights. Perhaps it will be four sixes or even three eight-hour days. Some jobs need a set staffing level or have customer-facing hours. If so, individuals working fewer hours will require more people rotating multiple shorter shifts. There are practical and logistical challenges to this, some of which methods such as TWI can address. Others will require organizations to be creative and adapt.

We’ll need to answer the question of “how to do more with less?” both at the individual and organizational level.

4. What’s My True North?

The article ends by suggesting that it might be time to start planning our work around our lives, instead of the other way around. “Work isn’t just our livelihood. It can be a source of structure, belonging, and meaning in our lives. But that doesn’t mean our jobs should dictate how we spend most of our waking hours.” In lean thinking terms, people returning to work or thinking of changing careers are asking, “What’s my True North?” If the purpose of work is to live and spend time in a certain place in a certain way, that is our True North. If it’s to gain the maximum income and status through work, regardless of where, how, and for how long, this is also okay. How we answer this changes the way we look at our options.

Organizations succeed when they can articulate their True North and get their employees to align their actions and intentions to it. Now as people are rethinking work, employers may need to treat this as a two-way street by asking, “This is our organization’s True North? What’s yours?”

5. What If We Put the Customer Second?

The article is about how people will rethink the way they work as they come back to the office, choose not to, or otherwise opt for increased flexibility. What’s missing from the discussion is the need to serve the customer. Jobs exist because customers need a product, service, or experience that the job specifically helps to provide. It’s great to have a True North, want to start our own business, or work only twenty hours per week, but none of this is possible without a customer, or equivalent and natural market force, willing to fund it.

It’s lean thinking heresy to put the customer second, rather than first. But if serving a customer restricts our liberty, or erodes our happiness, maybe we should not put them first. For the individual, the customer may be their family, their community, or even their own health. Negative liberty may mean that we fire customers that make us work long, unproductive hours, or act contrary to our purpose. Perhaps a new generation of workers will change their own consumer behavior, so as not to require others to work in the kinds of jobs that limit our liberty.

  1. Kaitlyn Pepper

    November 1, 2021 - 9:53 am

    This article was a great read. Even though the pandemic brought us very negative things, there were some positives to come out of it. The positives include businesses adapting to remote work and also noticing their weak spots and trying to improve them. This article states some ways to help businesses with remote workers to stay in contact and see where everyone is with the projects they are working on. Having daily management systems is a great way to manage performance, identify problems, and involve everyone in the process. Companies who did not have this during the pandemic had the chance to develop similar processes to stay connected and monitor performance.

  2. Jon Miller

    November 1, 2021 - 3:26 pm

    Thanks Kaitlyn. I appreciate your comment.

  3. Johnny Piela

    November 3, 2021 - 3:32 pm

    I loved this article. Both of my parents have been working remote throughout the pandemic since it started, and while at the beginning it was a challenging adjustment, it has been a great benefit for their productivity and happiness. I liked that you pointed out some different ways businesses can stay connected and on top of their work flows despite no longer being together under one roof, because it can be challenging when employees are working on different things at different times of the day in different places. Your last point about putting the customer second was also very interesting, because as you mentioned, it is very against the typical lean thinking. However, the idea of “firing” customers is definitely one to think about, and certainly could be something we see play out in the future. Once again, great read!

  4. Shahrukh A Irani

    December 10, 2021 - 10:54 am

    I am curious how you have actually implemented your ideas in manufacturing, distribution, etc. facilities where a human HAS TO touch their work (a tangible product) directly or indirectly.

    Also, Lean Thinkers tend to be phobic when it comes to technology, analytics, ML/AI doing the work of humans, etc. Is remote work, hybrid work, etc. going to change that paradigm?

    • Jon Miller

      December 10, 2021 - 11:26 am

      Hi Sharukh. I haven’t. As you point out this is harder to do in types of jobs that require being there at the factory, construction site, farm, etc. I think it’s well-known that the work from home phenomena isn’t affecting everyone same way. I wasn’t aware that lean thinkers were technophobic. The Japanese consultants who grew up in analog factories did steer people away from computers, it’s true. However I haven’t encountered this across the broad range of the lean community.

  5. M. Umstead

    December 16, 2021 - 4:33 pm

    I wouldn’t call lean practitioners technophobic. I would say historically the technological tools didn’t exist and lean practitioners were creating rules within a world where collaboration and technology didn’t coincide. It used to be “you can’t run lean from your desk. You need to go and see.” Therefore, bring a piece of paper and a pencil with you out to where the work is being done and talk to people. Times are changing. Not only is this not possible sometimes due to travel and budget restrictions, but technology has changed. With high definition video/voice, augmented reality, you can go and see virtually. The tools are typically not the bottleneck anymore. They used to be because either the tech or price were restrictive. Not anymore. It’s not perfect, you miss out on everything that is out of the camera lens’ scope, but it’s a step in the right direction. Realtime collaboration software also exists. We’re now able to have virtual global kaizen or brainstorming events without ever putting a single person on an airplane. One global kaizen event going virtual could save a company $50,000+ USD just from keeping 10 people from traveling for 1 week. The point is, trying to get the best out of go and see could be seen as technophobia when the technology wasn’t there.

    Last point I’ll make… in many cases it wasn’t technophobia as much as a lack of willingness to try something different. Just because lean coaches can make others better doesn’t mean lean coaches like change inside their own 3ft bubble. The realities of COVID and all the restrictions forced upon us required lean practitioners and everyone else to try new and uncomfortable things and I constantly hear a lot of those curmudgeons saying “they don’t want to go back to the old ways. The tools exist now and they help, not hinder.”

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