By Kevin Meyer
I had a couple of hours to think this morning thanks to running the Wine Country Half Marathon. Yep, 13.1 miles, which is nothing (ok, half) compared to what I'll be running in another eight weeks. In fact, I'm running significantly more than half marathons a couple times a week from now until then just to train. I've found my favorite part of all this training to be the fact that I can finally eat whatever the heck I want and still lose weight. I even downed a whole pizza last night to carbo load a bit… and I bet I'm still down a pound or two. Many years of living with a four ounce bag of chips miraculously adding a pound of weight are a distant memory.
I'm not in bad shape but I'm not exactly a fast runner – especially since as of only two months ago the most I would run without stopping was maybe a mile or two. So at today's event I wasn't surprised when just a few feet out of the starting block I was passed by hundreds and hundreds of people. In fact, since there were about 1500 racers, I'm guessing I was passed by about 1495. Literally. In the first half mile. People of all sizes and shapes and apparent ability – to the extent that I often asked "how in the world is that guy passing me when he's carrying at least a couple hundred more pounds?"
But I wasn't in it to win, just to finish. I have nothing to prove to anyone except myself. And the training for the real event in eight weeks is all to benefit a cause far greater than I.
Here's where (finally, you say) the analogy and my thoughts kick in.
At about mile 3 or 4 a funny thing happened. I began passing many of those people – most of whom were already walking. They had crashed and burned early and were looking forward to another 10 miles of run/walk misery.
Then for the next 6 or 7 miles things were pretty mellow. Running through the incredibly beautiful Paso Robles countryside, vineyard after vineyard of vines just starting to leaf, the early morning fog burning off. I even passed right next to my office.
And then around mile 10 it happened again – I began passing many more people. Most of these were in groups with several strong runners with one that was significantly weaker, forcing the entire group to slow. Some of the groups would have the faster members run ahead, then stop and wait.
Now don't get the wrong idea. Yes I passed a bunch of folks, but I was still very near the back of the pack. Ignore that for the sake of supporting the analogy I'll get around to developing hopefully soon. However I never stopped, never walked, and I kept very close to the same pace the entire 13.1 miles – with the one exception being a long line at a porta potty around mile 8. I was the tortoise, and damn proud of it.
Along the way I also came across a few groups, mostly pairs, where an obviously strong runner was intentionally running at a pace the weaker partner could sustain over the entire distance. The strong runner was coaching the partner on form and being encouraging. Commitment was shared, learning was occuring. The goal was not speed but endurance, the journey, the teaching.
I also noticed a couple people taking a short cut down a side road, cheating no one except themselves. Sad.
So think about these observations in terms of the lean journey many of us are on. Or should be.
Many organizations want to be on the lean journey. They've heard the stories and know it can transform them to become competitive and successful by removing waste, focusing on the customer, and respecting people. But knowingly or blindly they take different paths.
Some find the cheapest possible consultant who comes in and throws together some kaizen events. Perhaps some 5S here and there. There are quick early wins, often significant, but then the consultant leaves. The transformation process dies.
Some find pretty good internal or external consultants or champions that stick with the organization for a long period of time. They focus on 5S, kaizen, value stream mapping, TPM, TWI – the alphabet soup of lean. Significant improvements are made over a much longer period of time. But they are just tool heads and forget the second, in my opinion most critical, pillar of lean: respect for people. This requires identifying the right people, developing them, teaching them. Training, going to the gemba, accepting risk and using failure as teachable moments. Without respect for people the tools reach their effective limits and the organization begins to stagnate, with transformation throttled by a lack of knowledge and culture.
Some take the easy shortcut – perhaps outsourcing instead of improving. It works once, for a while, but there's no fundamental improvement. Other organizations that are focusing on improvement, even with some of the eventual limitations noted above, just shake their heads.
And some of us focus on the journey, the process, the people, and the greater meaning. A real lean transformation takes time, and really never ends. Anyone can do a kaizen or two, but without the understanding of what kaizen is – and that it doesn't necessarily have to be exactly a week long event – it will founder. Anyone can put some tape on the floor and organize a room or two, but without the understanding of how it impacts waste and improves value in the eyes of the customer it will be just a silly exercise. Anyone can wander through the factory and point out all that needs to change, but without taking the time to really watch the process, help others see the process through your eyes, and enable them to take the risk to make changes it will just be another bureaucrat pointing out failure – instead of opportunity.
Enjoy being a lean tortoise. After a while you'll be outcompeting those hares.