Are You Getting Depressed by Lean?

Slippery Wet. This image is CC0!

When you browse through Lean Management pages on the internet, you may have seen it yourself: reports about small success rates and comments about misunderstood Lean leading to bad consequences. From time to time I sense a level of frustration in those discussions that may have its very own source in Lean itself.

I advocate to apply Lean not only at work, but to improve your quality of life. Which immeditely raises three questions:

  • Can this very same frustration happen when using Lean “at home”?
  • Can that frustration lead to something more dangerous – namely depression, which would require professional help?
  • Can you prevent that frustration – hopefully with Lean approaches?

Usually I do not think about such down-beat topics and also do not write about them in this blog. But thanks to Google News I stumbled upon an interesting study about depression stages (original study report in German). To summarize it, the study result is that a depression has six stages:

  1. Highest expectations – the potential depression victim has expectations that are too high to be fulfilled.
  2. Experience of limits – the unrealistic expectations are not met, which is perceived as failure.
  3. Stagnancy – experienced as running on the spot, circling around the same thoughts over and over.
  4. Indifference in day-to-day life – everything seems equally unimportant and useless.
  5. Isolation – from the outside this appears as lethargy, while the victim is “stewing in his/her own juice” (literal translation from German which seems to be used in English as well)
  6. Resignation and embittered fixing of symptoms – which can include substance abuse, but also less dangerous futile efforts to live with the symptons instead of attacking the deeper causes with external help.

Since I am neither a psychiatrist nor in any other way qualified to give advice for real cases of depression: Please ask an expert if you have the feeling that this resonates with you.

If you want to read about how to apply this to Lean Self, please hang on. I first want to make a digression to Lean Management, as used in organisations.

Nevertheless, my feeling is that this stage model is transferable to Organisations and Lean practitioners. For example, I can imagine a broken effort to apply Lean in a company to go through these similar stages:

  1. Lean is seen as “silver bullet” that can fix quality issues, reduce cost and make clients and employees happy.
  2. A  Lean Transformation Program is started, but the very first experiences (e.g. with A3 or Kanban) fail.
  3. For some time the organisation still goes through the “Lean motions” but nothing really changes.
  4. People in the organisation quit to care about any ideas regarding Lean, or improvement at all. They just comply to the requirements of old or new standard operating procedures without caring or prioritizing. They do not see improvement opportunities any more.
  5. Outside advice (e.g. from Lean consultants) is seen as irrelevant or wrong, as well as the customers’ expecations and feedback. The organisation becomes a bunker that is protected from change impulses from the outside.
  6. In the end, the situation is worse than before trying out Lean. Processes deteriorate or are amended to fix only symptons, making them complicated and intransparent. Root causes are not fixed and the consequences will pop up every other day. Employees ar resignated or resign. Clients are frustrated and buy somewhere else if possible.

Does that ring a bell? Of course, a scientific study might reveal something totally different. This is just an extrapolation of my personal views.

The “Lean Strive for Perfection” is tempting to fall exactly into this pattern, be it in a company or if Lean Self is used for self-improvement. What many ignore is the following: If you really understand Lean you understand that perfection will never be achieved. You need to let go of the expectations that at some point in the future you will reach a stable optimum. This is why Lean experts are allergic to the word optimize. Even if you reach an optimum under certain circumstances – a comfort zone – the environment will always change, making the comfort zone obsolete.

Fortunately, the Lean principles do have the answer to more than this challenge:

  1. Define value – that includes to know what really is important. You do not need to be a chess master to enjoy chess. You do not need to have a large house if a condo is enough. You do not need to copy the career of your best friend.
  2. Eliminate waste – if you quit to do things that do not add value, you free time and resources to do what you love.
  3. Empower yourself – you have the right to change things. Identify artifical limits imposed on you from the outside and address them.
  4. Pull value – do things that enjoy yourself. Look for small(!) activities that make you happy. If you need help, ask for it. Most people are more willing to help than you might think. If you are stuck, search professional help.
  5. Improve continuously – and focus on small improvements. Change a tiny thing in your daily routine and see what happens. Maybe you take your morning shower after your first cup of coffee instead of before. If that tiny change did not work, try something else. You do not always need to use the full arsenal of Lean tools. Nevertheless, looking at root causes from time to time is helpful. If you fix symptoms you will run into that stagnation phase where nothing really changes.

Let’s map those principles to the depression stages. This is very crude and essentially all five principles apply everywhere, but I want so set a focus.

  1. Highest expectations – prevention first: Define value
  2. Experience of limits – may be a symptom for overburdening waste: Eliminate waste, improve continously (in small steps)
  3. Stagnancy – the feeling that you do not have the energy to change: Empower yourself, improve continously (in small steps)
  4. Indifference in day-to-day life – value does not happen by chance: Pull value (and search help)
  5. Isolation – you need outside help: Pull value
  6. Resignation and embittered fixing of symptoms – you need outside help: Pull value

What do you think? Is this all over-simplified or does it resonate with you? I’m looking forward to your comments.

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2 comments on “Are You Getting Depressed by Lean?

  1. Lynn Whitney on said:

    Far from causing depression, I strongly feel that truly implementing Lean at Home is one way to overcome depression. Going to your example, the ‘root cause’ is not Lean, but rather the perception of Lean as a silver bullet. When you realize that Lean is all about eliminating waste and building people, you’ll probably agree with me that it ought to be taught in our schools, in our homes, specially to stay-at-home moms…I want to see moms with more easy access to Lean teaching, which is why I’ve started a website, I would love your feedback if you have time to check it out.

    • Jens R. WoinowskiJens R. Woinowski on said:

      Thank you for your comment. I checked your site, this looks great.

      I’m looking forward to more from you.

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