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In Times of Austerity, Can We Have Our Cake & Eat It?


Wouldn’t it be great if it was possible to have your cake and eat it rather than endlessly counting the calories?

I am in that very fortunate position of doing a job that I love. On the whole I get to choose who I work with, and to work with people I like. That’s a great recipe for getting the most out of every situation. But there are many things we have to do that we can’t honestly say we ‘love’. They don’t thrill us or fill us with unbounded joy. They are necessary but dull, and they usually take up too much of our time.

So in this article I’m going to encourage you to lean towards Lean, in order to shape up, get fitter and leaner without feeling you’re being mean to ourselves.

More or Less, Less is More, or More & Less?

We’ve probably all felt at times that we’re doing a lot more and getting a lot less back: that we’re having to work harder, run faster and put in more hours for the same or less return. Who’s experienced that? It’s like pouring money into a savings account with very low interest.

I work with companies who want to reverse that trend and I’m going to give you a snap shot of some techniques that can help you do the same.

During my 20 years working in industry as a trainer, coach, and facilitator, I’ve been able to observe some very bad business habits and some very good ones. My work involves a healthy mix of consultancy, process design improvement, and management training; so I’ve been able to see how it’s possible to develop, refine and embed processes that truly drive business and personal value.

The concept of value isn’t always easy to understand, so consider how you would answer the following question.

What would you do if you suddenly had 5 minutes that you didn’t think you had?

Time is a precious commodity that needs investing wisely. In this article, I’m going to show you how you can reclaim some precious minutes of your life to do more of the things that add most value to it. That’s the philosophy of Lean. It’s not about cutting corners: it is about cutting waste! It’s not about making ourselves redundant: it’s about putting ourselves to productive work! It’s about getting more for less, not the other way around.

How much waste do you come across in the organisation where you work? I’d wager a lot! What type of waste is it? It will be a combination of some of the following:

 • Rework (because it wasn’t right first time)

• Delays and unnecessary waiting caused by bad planning and poor cooperation

• Unnecessary transportation of materials

• Things not being in the right place or easily accessible, requiring more movement that is necessary

• Badly designed processes that are complex, over-processed and inefficient with more stages, checks, and sign-offs than are actually required

• Doing or making too much (i.e., more than is needed at the time)

• Storage of goods that are unnecessary, and which tie up valuable cash

You can probably think of an example for every one of these based on your own working environment and even your home. Our challenge is ultimately to prevent waste from occurring but there something that stands in our way. My hypothesis is that there’s so much waste in organisations because we simply don’t learn very well.

1. Without learning, we are destined to repeat our past mistakes: i.e. we do more but get less! Instead of evaluating successes and failures, learning from them and sharing that information, we find ourselves in repetitive loops

2. Solutions to problems that have been solved before are consigned to history and when the problem reappears we waste time and effort trying to find a new solution. Problems that have been solved in one part of the organisation still exist in another where different people are left to find their own solution to a problem that’s already been solved elsewhere. If it’s already been solved, it’s no longer a problem, it’s CARELESSNESS!

3. Experience is not the same as exposure. Just because you were there, doesn’t mean you were aware. You also have to engage and evaluate if the experience is to have any lasting value.

4. Most work environments are typified by lurching from once crisis to another, never pausing for breath or reflection. The learning cycle is rarely completed at an organisation or individual level.

5. Of course, some people seem to relish the prospect of chaos and fire-fighting. Is that true of you? It appeals to some people’s personalities and temperaments; they feel heroic; they feel they’ve achieved something. So changing this situation might mean changing our personal psychology.


PDCA is a simple cycle that if followed ensures every experience is thought through, capitalised on and improved. It stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act.

How many of the organisations you are involved with miss C&A? So busy doing there’s no time left for reflecting on whether it worked or how it worked?

How many also miss P? So eager to ‘do’ that they don’t consider how best to do it (or even if they need to do it at all)?

Sadly, the learning cycle is in pretty poor shape in many organisations. So we have to establish simple and robust practices that get the bike back on the road.

Getting in Shape

It’s likely that a majority of people have been on a diet at some stage in their lives. Some have been on more than one. But how many of them really worked? I suppose if you have to go on more than one, that’s an answer.

It seems to me that most diets don’t work because they are based on the principle of eating less of the stuff you like and more of the stuff you don’t like! Or doing less of the things you do like (like watching TV) and more of the things you don’t like (like exercise). You’re cutting away the things that are valuable to you! It’s a punishing daily regime. Every day you feel like you’re being put through the mill.

With diets, we have to create compelling goals or rewards to make the daily dish of punishment palatable. We have to keep telling ourselves:

 • If I eat less, I’ll be more healthy.

• If I weigh less I’ll feel more attractive.

• If I do more exercise I’ll be less sluggish.

• If I drink less, I’ll be more conscious.

All of these things may be true, but the trouble with dieting is that most of us get pleasure from eating (and drinking), don’t we? We don’t see eating as a punishing thing?

But we don’t always get pleasure from jobs and activities that are cumbersome and complex. We don’t relish red tape and inefficient processes.

Who likes cleaning toilets? Probably, that’s a minority. So if we could find a way to do it more cleanly and quickly, and spend less time with our hand round the u-bend, we’d want to do that wouldn’t we? (Assuming you had no choice about cleaning the toilet in the first place!)

If we could find a way to take the pain (and waste) out of our daily work in order to simplify our lives and buy back some time, that wouldn’t be such a punishing thing to do as dieting, would it?

So maybe there’s a way we can have our cake and eat it! Because now we’re talking about cutting back on the stuff we don’t value in order to get more of the stuff we do value.

One of the problems with the strategy underlying the austerity measures and cutbacks introduced by the present British government is that they have adopted the dieting approach and not the true Lean approach. So we all feel punished: we all feel like we’re having to give up things we attach value to. It’s driving us round the U-bend!

Too many Lean initiatives are the same. They are, in reality, more about dieting than embracing the fundamental principles of Lean. Because lean is not about cutting jobs: but it is about cutting complexity and releasing more value. Lean isn’t a diet. It’s a new and more efficient way of thinking and using resources to get better outcomes.

So as I suggested at the start, one way to have your cake and eat it is to do more of the things you love. That’s the philosophy of the Strengths-based movement. You get more value from doing the things you value most.

If you don’t believe me, answer this:

Do you like doing things you really hate? How productive are you when you do them?

So it’s about value. But we can’t always choose to do only the things we love. And we can only really determine what that value is (and tease out even more value) if we learn through a process of evaluation.

A disciplined evaluation gives us the opportunity to reduce chaos, risk, effort, time, cost, resources and angst whilst increasing quality and productivity.

The beauty of it is that the time taken to evaluate and learn is a drop in the ocean compared to the excessive delays caused by leapfrogging this vital learning stage and it filters right through to the bottom line.

If we want to get more for less, the necessary but mundane tasks that have less inherent value need to become streamlined, less painful and easier to do. That’s why the adoption of simple and disciplined processes can help.

So there is a way to have your cake and eat it! The three simple methods described below are a good starting point.

Positive Evaluation

When evaluating a project, process or activity, focus your efforts on Positive Evaluation. It looks like this:

 • WWW = What Went Well

• EBI = Even Better If

You’ll notice that nowhere does it ask you to contemplate “who screwed up?”, “why was that a shambles?”, or “what went wrong?” The focus is on building, not destroying: and through building, learning.


5S is a methodology that can further enhance performance by adding organisation and order to the process. The English version makes it more accessible for non-Japanese speakers, and it offers an approach that is highly transferable to almost any activity (especially those that need to be repeated).



SMED is another Lean method and stands for Single Minute Exchange of Die. The core objective of this process is to reduce the time it takes to move from one activity to another to single digits, and make it as short as possible.

Maybe you’ve seen and been amazed by how quickly and efficiently Formula 1 mechanics can turn around a pit-stop during a race. Basically, through proper organisation and slick execution, F1 teams have been able to get tyre & fuel changes down to less than 9 seconds!

Of course, they have also achieved this by throwing money and resources at the task, which might not always be an available option for you when attempting to speed up your internal processes. But there is still much we can learn from the pit-stop methodology and mind-set.

I suppose it’s like a diet because we’re trying to get rid of our spare tyre (or swap it).

Here’s what the process looks like.


 • The first thing to do is to observe the various activities in a process and categorise them as Internal or External activities. Quite simply, an internal activity is one that takes place during the process, and an external activity is one that could be done in advance of the process.

• The next stage is to move as many activities to the External side leaving fewer Internal activities.

• From then on, it’s a case of refining all activities (Internal & External) and eliminating those that are unnecessary so that the process can happen more efficiently, quickly, smoothly and effectively.

• The final stages are to document the new procedures, and then repeat the process if necessary to further reduce complexity & the time it takes to work through the whole process (lead time).


Dieting can leave you thin, irritable and hungry. It’s often about taking away the fun. Lean increases agility and value. It stimulates an appetite for growth.

 We used to think in terms of More OR Less. Now we can have both. That’s:

 • Less frustration, less waste, less resource.

• More Productivity, More fun, More Time.

 But what will you do with all that extra time?

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