Gandhi And The Art Of Continuous Improvement

When I was a co-op in Fort Wayne Indiana, my place of work was on the west side of the city and the large apartment complex where we lived was on the northeast side.  There were several different paths to get from Point A to Point B.  You could pop up north and take the highway around and come in from the west, you could take one of the larger roads south and then cut straight across and come in from the east, or you could do some zig-zags to go in a more direct path.  Of course, as young co-ops who had just learned about six sigma techniques and were anxious to practice them, we designed a DOE to determine which was the fastest method of getting to work depending on what time you left.

The answer was typically the zig-zag method, although getting caught at any number of stoplights with a long wait could throw you off several minutes.  It got to the point where at one particular location we knew that if we saw a red light and a line of cars, we would break off from the main route through two side streets and would get there just in time to jump ahead of the very same line of cars we would have been following.  Were we safe drivers while following our standards?  Did we follow the speed limits and traffic laws?  Sure, to the extent that most 21-year olds do.  But, I’d say we were driving with added intensity, focused on reacting to the situation in front of us so we could shave seconds and minutes off our commute everyday.

taco bellThat added intensity geared towards doing things in the most expedient manner spills over into other areas of your life.  Later that year I was waiting in the drive-through line at Taco Bell for lunch, and it was taking longer than usual.  I remember feeling extremely stressed, extremely upset, because of my perception that they were wasting an inordinate amount of my day, and my smoldering gaze was zeroed in on the motionless cars in front of mine.  At one point I glanced to my left at the dining area of Taco Bell.

There in the window was a kid, acting like a kid.  He was probably seven years old, and he had placed multiple straws in his nose, ears and mouth, and had the biggest, happiest grin on his face you can imagine.  He smiled at me, gave a quick tilt of his head, and then he turned around and went back to his food.  It was like he knew at that very moment I needed a shock of silliness to my system to remind me to relax, that life was not always about how many seconds of variability there were in your drive to work every day, that being angry at the cars in the drive through line at Taco Bell was not worth my energy and didn’t make sense.  I turned back to the line of cars, sat back in my seat a little, and smiled.  From that point on I took a much more relaxed drive to work.

This connects to a key point I try to get across when I teach people about standard work.  After I teach that standards are the basis for improvement, and that they should be the least waste way we know today, and that it is ok and important that standards change, I ask if we should have standards for everything.  The point I try to get across is that you need to have standards for important things.  What are those things that truly connect with enabling you to create value in your workplace or your life?

gandhiThe theme for this post came about because I recently attended a “time-budgeting” class offered at work.  It was very high-level, no new concepts that I hadn’t heard, but it was a great opportunity to reflect on whether I was truly applying those concepts, particularly when it came to choosing the important and urgent work over others.  The facilitator had a quote from Gandhi (although it appears slightly modified) in his presentation that made me stop and think.  The quote was:

“There is more to life than increasing the speed at which we live it.”

Every once in a while I feel myself slipping back into that person who cares a little too much about shaving minutes and seconds off.  And every once in a while the image of a big smile, straws, and silliness reminds me to take a step back and ask if it’s really that important.

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