Business Education

The Practice of Reflection

January 10, 2020



By Denise Bennett – Lean Coach, Lean Enterprise Australia



The transition from one year to the next, and this year, one decade to the next, provides an excellent time for personal reflection. Many of us make our New Year resolutions, but how often do we ground these resolutions in reflection? This is such a busy time for most of us in our personal lives. Often the new work year is upon us before we have had an opportunity to stop, reflect and learn from our both our personal and work life experiences.

With January being a quieter time for many organisations, scheduling reflection within that first week back at work is totally achievable. I love to reflect while running, and there is no better place to run than on the beach five minutes from my home.  Luckily I get to spend more time at home at this time of year as a result of the slow-downs in the organisations that I work with and. I would like to share a few of my ‘running’ reflections with you.

Christmas Reflection

This year we hosted the Christmas meal and so, fresh off the plane from the US, I immersed myself in three days of cycles of shopping, cooking and cleaning. To keep myself on track (and entertained), the pantry doors were turned into a visual board to indicate progress of the menu elements. My family found this hilarious, however, I got the last laugh when for the first time I can remember, every course element was delivered on time with 100% quality. No food item was missed or found in the microwave or hidden on a corner of the bench during clean-up.

I also found myself temporarily deaf on Christmas day after a morning swim resulted in two completely blocked ears and a huge earache. Feeling stressed, in pain and totally isolated from my ‘hearing’ guests, the visual practice helped me hold it all together in abnormal circumstances.

Visual Practice can be used anywhere to support the flow of the work. It works for individuals, teams and organisations.

2019 Reflection

As I reflected on my year of work in 2019, I celebrated that this was my 40th year of fairly continuous full-time work and I am now clear about the work I really like to do and where I believe I can add value.

Over the past year, I have got to know many teams from different organisations and sectors.  Whilst the work that they do varies, it is always easy to identify opportunities for improvement. But the technical part of lean is the easy part (and the fun part) for a lean coach; where to and how to improve can be easily seen.  The struggle is helping leaders and teams lift their heads out of the non-value-added work and give them a glimpse of how things could be better for their customers, their organisations and themselves. Often this means simply encouraging them to try, experiment and learn and then experiment again. Increasingly, in this age of digitisation, it is also a challenge to  convince teams  that many processes can be made easier without the budget and the wait for an IT solution, and that there is something they could do differently today for no cost.

The joy in my work comes from finding and working with those formal or informal leaders who are willing to learn and try. They are willing to take a leap of faith and try something different even if it feels uncomfortable at first. One of these leaders described her experience of introducing daily huddles like going on a first date. “It felt weird, unnatural and forced to start with but fairly quickly it became comfortable and we were all much more relaxed. Within a few weeks we were loving it!”  These leaders will engage their team mates, convince them to participate, coach them and show them that continuous improvement can be done by anyone who is willing to ‘have a go’. The work that is so difficult for me to do as an external, is easy for them. They have trusting relationships with their co-workers and they can influence up, down and horizontally. Pull is alive and well and the lean transformation grows largely by stealth rather than by design. Pockets of improvement emerge in unexpected places. Messages like “you can too” have more impact than “you must”.

I have the privilege of working alongside these leaders to support them in their important work. In 2020, I want to do more of this!

Reflections on the 20teens

The 20teens was the first full decade that my work was largely focused on the application of Lean Thinking as an improvement, management and leadership system. At the turn of the last decade, my family celebrated as my young niece survived a rare and almost terminal illness. During this experience, I lost faith that healthcare could be improved as I witnessed defect after defect, often intervening to alter the course of action and keep my niece safe. As a nurse, I lost faith in the nursing profession as I observed the work to be mostly technical and reactive and missing the focus on caring and connecting – the work that has traditionally set nursing apart (rightly or wrongly) from other health care professions.

To take a break from improving healthcare, I transitioned my work to local government where I learned so much about leadership and developing people. I honed my lean skills for a diverse set of businesses, something that is quite unique to the work of local government. We found it worked everywhere regardless of whether the work was transactional or project based. We pioneered its use in many settings, including the application to managing significant issues and risks for the organisation. This made the CEO feel more informed, stakeholders more consulted and reduced the time to address political and sensitive issues.

But I was always going to be drawn back to healthcare, and midway through the teens my family moved to California where I worked as the Lean leader at Stanford Children’s Health. Here I learned that doctors could be successfully engaged in meaningful improvement work and that a daily management system can reduce so much reactive work through proactive activities like huddles, gemba rounds and team-based problem solving. I learned that the front line could be engaged in, and contribute to, the achievement of corporate goals through the catch ball process and that small step improvements were as much as an opportunity to develop coaches as well as improvers.

I also learned that we have built in a better system for leader development in Australia. With more generous leave entitlements, we encourage at least one longer break annually for even senior leaders which provides opportunities for staff to ‘act up’ and this in turn provides opportunities to back-fill, and so on. One senior leader’s leave may provide multiple staff with the opportunity to advance their leadership skills.  Many a leader has been identified and nurtured through this process. In the US organisations I became familiar with a one-week break was the most common, 10 days at a stretch. The leader’s work was shared out to peers or someone became the contact during their absence. The leader kept an eye on their emails while away and came back to a significant back log of work. One of my colleagues shared that she was frequently contacted by her boss while on leave and said that it was just not worth trying to have a longer break due to the pressure on return. There was inadequate time to wind down and leaders felt guilty about overburdening their peers. Let’s protect our existing system and leverage on the opportunities to strategically develop more leaders, while we enjoy a well-deserved break. Reflect on what is happening in your organisation at the moment. Have you been thoughtful about developing a team member or colleague while you are spending time with your family over the summer break?

2020 Vision for the Next Decade

I took the opportunity to close my computer over the break, with the only work permissible being reflection.  I have shared some of these reflections with you. The practice of intentional reflection has helped me see more clearly where I need to focus and develop for the coming year and into the next decade.

One thing that is clear for me is that as we are faced with new challenges and continue to experiment and learn, Lean Thinking and Practice will continue to evolve. The 20teens saw the influence of Agile, Lean Start-Up, Lean Product Development, Design Thinking and Human-Centred Design. In my own practice I learned new techniques and methods that increased my effectiveness as a lean leader and coach. So, although I have clearer vision on what a lean management and improvement system looks like and how to get there, I need to keep my eyes wide open  for opportunities to enhance and improve the way that I support leaders within organisations to deliver more value to their customers, and enhance meaningful work of their staff.

Improving our improvement and management systems is as important as improving our processes.

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