Keep it Lean – Become more productive and motivated

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Summer 2016.

Lean started in the automotive industry with Toyota’s Production System, but the ideas and principles are universal, and can be applied to any industry. The idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste, thus creating more value for customers with fewer resources. Essentially, there are three steps to get started with Lean:

  1. Define value from your customer’s perspective.
  2. Find waste.
  3. Eliminate waste by making improvements.

This article gives you an introduction to Lean ideas, methods, and principles. Hopefully, you will be inspired to start your own Lean journey, and become a practical scientific thinker!

Define value from your customer’s perspective

The most important step in Lean is to define value from your customer’s perspective. This is no small task. First you must know who your customer is, and then you need to figure out what that customer values. It’s a process of user experience research.


Find waste

Once you have defined value from your customer’s perspective, start looking for waste. What is waste? Waste is any type of work that does not directly add to the customer-defined value of the product you are creating. In the world of industrial manufacturing, waste is separated into eight categories to make it easier to find:

  • Over production is the waste of producing more product or work-items than needed. This is the mother of all wastes. By creating another product, that product is processed and transported, creating extra motion, waiting and inventory.
  • Waiting is waste of not adding value to a product. Any time where value is not added is waiting time.
  • Inventory is the waste of accumulating more product parts or work-items than needed.
  • Transportation is the waste of moving a product or work-item more than needed.
  • Motion is the waste of movement around a product or work-item, for example, reaching too far to grab a tool.
  • Over processing is the waste of doing more than is necessary to a product or work item. For example, tightening a bolt too hard.
  • Defective work is the waste of creating products that do not fulfil the requirements or customer values.
  • Unused skill is the waste of failing to use all the skills and knowledge available.

Knowledge work is not industrial manufacturing, and some of the eight wastes can be hard to translate to office work, but it is a starting point. For example:

  • Task switching could be considered to be Motion. Some estimates say that you lose 40% of your time because of task switching.
  • Searching for information is also a form of Motion.
  • Having a large backlog of e-mails, or topics in progress could be considered to be Inventory.
  • Conversion between formats, or other communication barriers could be considered to be a form of Transportation.
  • Handing over documents or knowledge is another form of Transportation. Often it is like a game of Chinese whispers, where errors accumulate with every player in the game.

Ultimately, you need to figure out what your customer values. Everything that does not add to that is waste, and you should strive to eliminate it by making improvements.

Eliminate waste by making improvements

Lean is a mindset where you focus on customer value and the elimination of waste. A word of warning: once you start looking for waste you will find it everywhere. There is no going back.

To get into the Lean mindset, you should start small. Try to spend no more than 30 minutes to make a two-second improvement every day. Come up with and perform an experiment that has the potential to cut the time of something you do by two seconds. This could be as simple as learning a keyboard shortcut or setting up an Outlook rule to handle e-mail more efficiently. By doing two-second improvements every day you will quickly get into the mindset of finding and eliminating waste. The concept of continuous improvement in Lean is called Kaizen.

Assuming that you improve something that you normally do at least five times per day, you will have made up for the 30 minute investment within a year. Within a year, your two-second improvement will have saved you 40 minutes, and a return-of-investment (ROI) of around 33 per cent.

What happens when you come up with an improvement you can share with your colleagues? The ROI goes up. It may have taken you 30 minutes to come up with the improvement but sharing it with someone else is almost instant. The ROI increases from 33% to around 167% just by sharing an improvement with a single person. Share it with two colleagues and the ROI goes up to 300%.

What if all your colleagues start making their own improvements and share them with everyone on your team? There will of course be some overlapping ideas, and a few failed experiments, but that’s OK. The potential is limitless. This is where the magic happens in terms of creating a Lean culture, and in terms of generating a massive ROI.

To learn more about the concept of 2-second improvements, I recommend reading Paul Aker’s book 2 Second Lean.

To get started with making daily improvements, it’s a good idea to study some of the existing Lean tools and methods, such as A3 problem solving, 5S, 5 Whys, or Kanban.


Study Lean tools and methods

Your implementation of Lean depends on your context. Copying Toyota’s methods does not work as well as creating your own methods based on Lean principles. But, studying existing methods will help you understand the Lean mindset. Let’s look at some general Lean methods you can use in most contexts.

The A3 problem-solving method

The A3 problem-solving method makes use of an A3 size piece of paper and a five-step process:

  1. Problem: What happened? Describe what happened, and why it is a problem.
  2. Goal: What should have happened? Describe the ideal outcome.
  3. Cause: Why did it happen?
  4. Improve: How do we keep it from happening? Come up with some ideas on how to improve the situation.
  5. Check: How do we know if it worked? Create a test to determine whether the improvements you made actually solved the problem.

The idea is to use an A3 size piece of paper, and keep the problem-solving group small enough to fit around it. Limiting the size of the paper and the number of people brings out people’s creativity. The alternative, arranging a 10-person meeting and using a spreadsheet, does not.

A3 Problem solving

5S a place for everything (you need), and everything (you need) in its place

The 5S method has the following components:

  • Sort. Separate the tools you need from the tools you don’t.
  • Straighten. Make the tools you need easily accessible.
  • Shine. Clean up regularly.
  • Standardize. Make checklists for daily, weekly, monthly routines.
  • Sustain. Make sure you keep everything in order. Make regular improvements.

The 5S method is a systematic method for arranging your workplace and tools to maximize value creation. In a manufacturing setting, this relates to what tools you use, and how to arrange

them. In the office, there is little benefit of using a shadow board for your highlighters and coffee mugs. But, you can use 5S to arrange your software and information in the best possible way. What applications should be available from your desktop? Which ones should you pin to the taskbar? Can you reduce the number of steps required to reach specific information?

5S does not mean you should chain yourself to a pointless standard. 5S is about changing your environment so that you can find things and information faster. This makes abnormalities and waste stand out, making it easier to find and fix problems.

For ideas and best practices on how to arrange your environment, tasks, and projects for maximum productivity, I highly recommend reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity.

The 5 Whys method

5 Whys is a method you can use to find the root cause of a problem. The idea is to keep asking “Why”, and let every question form the basis for the next question.

Let’s say your car won’t start.

  1. Why won’t the car start? Because the battery is dead.
  2. Why is the battery dead? Because the alternator doesn’t work.
  3. Why doesn’t the alternator work? Because the alternator belt is broken.
  4. Why is the alternator belt broken? Because it is old.
  5. Why is it old? Because the car wasn’t serviced according to schedule.

So, with five questions we reached a plausible root cause of the problem. We forgot to service the car as regularly as we should have. If we had stopped after the first “why”, we would have just replaced the battery, which eventually would have drained, and we would be back to square one.

Often we stop asking ourselves “why” as soon as we reach the first reason for a problem. The 5 Whys method helps us get past that point, and get to the real root cause of the problem, to help us solve it once and for all. The number 5 is not important, it could just as well be 3 or 15. The important thing is that you challenge yourself to go one step further. Eventually you will reach a root cause that says “Because of Big Bang”, and at that point it is probably a good idea to go a few steps back, and pick a root cause you can actually do something about. It’s a balancing act.



Kanban is a method for factories to manage inventory and production pace. You may have seen Kanban cards at your supermarket without even knowing it. At the back of every shelf is a card with information about where to order the product, and how much to order. When the product is sold out, or close to being sold out, a member of staff picks up the Kanban card and places the order. That way supermarkets don’t have to carry more inventory than they need. By adjusting the placement of the Kanban card they can adjust for changing demands. The concept is the same for factories. You decide on a Kanban level of inventory, and once you reach that level, you reorder the product or source material. At the very end of a factory value chain is the point of sale, where customers buy your product. There, you may decide on a Kanban level of six finished products. When you have six products or fewer left you need to make new ones. That way, you can use Kanban to control an entire production process. The Kanban method controls both inventory and production pace. It promotes clear communication because it’s a visual method, where anyone can see what needs to be done at any point in the production process.


An interesting example of how to use a Kanban in the office is to put a sheet of pink paper close to the bottom of the stack of papers in the printer’s input tray. When the pink page appears in your printout, you know that it is time to refill the printer. This helps you avoid those annoying situations where the printer is out of paper, and you have to run back and forth between the printer room and your computer to fix it.

In knowledge work we don’t really have inventory of things, we have work in progress. The more we have, the slower we produce because of the task switching. We can use the Kanban method to reduce our work in progress, and to help us keep track of what we need to produce. In essence, all our work goes through three stages:

  1. Backlog”. This is where the work-to-be-done sits until you start doing it.
  2. Doing”. This is where you do the actual work.
  3. Done”. The work is done.

You might have a few more categories between “Backlog” and “Done” for any given process, but the concept is the same. To avoid task switching, we want as few items as possible in any “Doing” category at any given time.

Where I work, we deliver a set of features with every new version of our software. Every new feature requires me to create any number of:

  • Release notes
  • Task topics
  • Concept topics
  • Reference topics
  • Context-sensitive online help topics.

To keep track of my work in MadCap Flare, I have set up a special table of contents (TOC) to hold all my work items. It looks something like Figure 1 where each feature links to a set of topics related to the feature. To move a topic collection forward in the process, you just click and drag topics from Backlog to Doing to Done:

To avoid too much task switching, I never work on more than three features at any step of the process.

Using a Kanban TOC helps me keep track of what I am doing, what I have done, and what remains to do. Because it is integrated with my help authoring tool, I don’t have to spend time keeping track of my plans in another tool, such as Excel or Outlook. This reduces the risk of getting out of sync or making errors.

For more information about the power of Kanban, read Jim Benson’s book Personal Kanban. To learn how to design your own Lean methods and tool, you need to learn more about some of the Lean principles.

Learning about the Lean principles

To be able to design your own Lean processes it’s important to understand some of the Lean principles:

  • Resource efficiency versus Flow efficiency
  • Single-piece flow
  • Pulling versus Pushing

Resource efficiency versus Flow efficiency

Resource efficiency is defined as the time a resource adds value compared to the time that resource is available.

Flow efficiency is defined as the time that a product has value added to it compared to the total time it takes to create that product.

Resource efficiency means that you focus on the resource, and flow efficiency means that you focus on the product or customer value. Generally, as consumers we appreciate flow efficiency, but as producers we appreciate resource efficiency.

Ideally, we want processes that are both resource-efficient and have high flow efficiency.

If you are running a hospital, hiring a doctor costs a lot of money, and you want to get your money’s worth. If the patients have to wait a little, so be it. In a resource-efficient environment, the doctor is busy, but the patients have to wait.

REsource efficiency

In a flow-oriented hospital, all processes are designed with the patient in mind. It is a priority to make a speedy diagnosis and start treatment as soon as possible. Your doctor would be less busy, and you might even have to hire an extra one. But patients don’t have to wait. With the extra time your doctor now have, they can start making improvements to the process. By continuously improving, and eliminating waste, both costs and waiting times are reduced. In a flow-efficient environment, focus is on not letting patients wait.

Flow efficiency

In 2004, a breast cancer clinic in Sweden switched focus from resource efficiency to flow efficiency. Waiting times were drastically reduced. The waiting time from the first visit to the clinic until they got their diagnosis was reduced from 42 days to just two hours.

For an in-depth analysis of the concepts of flow and resource efficiency, I recommend reading This is Lean by Niklas Modig and Pär Åhlström.

The power of single-piece flow

The lead time of a process depends on the work items in progress and the cycle time. To reduce the cycle time, we need to either reduce the cycle time for each work item, or limit the work-
in-progress, or both.

The merits of working on a single product from start to finish, as opposed to creating batches of work are:

  • You will detect errors early on, and don’t risk making the same error on 50 work items, having to go back and fix them on all 50 items.
  • You will have fewer tasks to switch between, reducing the time lost to context switching.
  • The first work item is finished faster because it doesn’t have to wait for the 49 other work items to finish.

Is single-piece flow always better than batch work? The somewhat disappointing answer to that question is “it depends”. If batch work doesn’t stop the flow, or create any form of waste, then go for it. But generally, it’s a good idea to challenge the status quo by redesigning a batch flow process to a single-piece process.

Pull instead of Push

The key is to produce work only when the downstream process asks for it. That way we avoid building queues and unevenness in the process. Of course, only producing help content when a customer asks for it may prove difficult. To some extent, we need to predict and estimate what our customers need. This relates to doing user research, and creating integrated feedback loops to stay in touch with your customers.

Does Lean thinking make you happier?

Some criticism of Lean is that it tries to make people into productive robots, just doing more work in less time. But, implemented correctly, Lean has the potential to make you not only more productive, but also happier. Author Daniel Pink examines workplace motivation in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He found that there are three main components of workplace motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

  • Autonomy means that you have control over the work you do. With Lean you have the mandate to experiment and improve your processes, and that will definitely give you a sense of autonomy.
  • Mastery means that you get better at doing things. With Lean improvements, you get a sense of progress, both in your work and in your capabilities to do that work.
  • Purpose means that you connect to a larger cause. By focusing on improving customer values, Lean will give you a sense of purpose.

Because it fulfils all components of the motivation trifecta, Lean has the potential to make you happier at work. Of course, a poor implementation of Lean can work in the opposite direction.

For information about how to successfully implement Lean, I suggest reading Lonnie Wilson’s book: How to implement Lean manufacturing.

Become a practical scientific thinker

Lean thinking is not about becoming an expert in a specific work area or process. It is about developing capabilities to develop capabilities, and to become an expert problem-solver.

Engineer and researcher Mike Rother has done research in the area of becoming a practical scientific thinker, and how this concept is actually at the core of Lean. He calls the concept Improvement Kata. A Kata is a structured pattern to help you form a long-term habit. By practicing the Improvement Kata, you learn how to apply practical scientific thinking to both your work, and your personal life.

The general Improvement Kata process has four steps:

  1. Define a successful outcome with a set of target conditions.
  2. Map out the current conditions.
  3. Set up a time-limited goal somewhere between the current conditions and the target conditions.
  4. Perform experiments to get from the current conditions to the next set of target conditions. Some experiments will fail, but they are not failed experiments as long as you learn from them.

I have used this method for everything from producing help topics faster to getting in better physical shape. It is a powerful method.

To learn more about it, I suggest reading Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata.

Lean starts at home

If you don’t have the time, energy, or mandate to start making improvements at work, I suggest you start at home. My first two-second improvement was to move the bathrobe closer to the shower. It meant I saved two seconds and the bathroom got less wet. Something as small as that may indeed sound trivial, but it led me on the path to make more significant improvements at work. For example:

  • Introduce a Kanban TOC in Flare to help manage our work.
  • Integrate information from our ERP system directly into Flare to save precious time when researching new features.
  • Introduce a feedback link in our online help to help us connect with users to better understand their values.
  • Help automate our build processes to save time and reduce the chance of errors.

All in all, these improvements save 100s of hours yearly. And it all started with some two-second improvements at home.

If you start making improvements at home, there is a chance that your family will not approve. At one point, I had filled our refrigerator with 75 Kanban cards to manage the inventory of groceries. It drove my wife crazy, and eventually I had to drop the experiment. I learned that it is important to make sure all stakeholders are informed, and see the value of an improvement before I start. What eventually happened was that my wife came up with some improvements to the system, which is the basis of the system we use today.

Get started today!

Find waste, and start making a two-second improvement every day! Learn the Lean principles and become a better problem solver!

Oh, and have fun!

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you might have.



  • Niklas Modig, 2012. This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox. Rheologica Publishing.
  • Mike Rother, 2009. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results. 1st Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Daniel H. Pink, 2011. Drive. Canongate Books Ltd.
  • Paul A. Akers, 2013. 2 Second Lean – 2nd Edition: How to Grow People and Build a Fun Lean Culture. 2 Edition. FastCap Press.
  • Daniel Markovitz, 2012. A Factory of One. Productivity Press.
  • James P. Womack, 2007. The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production– Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry. Reprint Edition. Free Press.
  • Jim Benson, 2011. Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  • Lonnie Wilson, 2015. How To Implement Lean Manufacturing, Second Edition. 2 Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
  • David Allen, 2015. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Revised ed. Penguin Books.
  • 5 Whys – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. 2016. 5 Whys – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 06 April 2016].

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