“So, you really want to know what it’s like to raise three children?”
I did. This man was speaking from experience.
“Let me try to put it in terms you’ll understand. Pretend you are playing defense in the NFL. When you have one kid, it’s like playing zone coverage. It’s easy. Most of the time, you get a break. You just keep your head on a swivel and stay ready in case the kid enters your zone.”
“Now with two kids, you have to play man coverage. You don’t get a break, but it’s manageable. You and your wife each take one kid and you just follow them around wherever they go.”
“With three kids, forget about it. You’re only hope is the prevent defense. Your outnumbered, so all the little stuff, you leave it go. You just put your heels on the goal line, and you pray that they don’t burn you for the big one. That’s what it’s like to raise three kids.”
Not only was this man a mentor to me, but he was also a father of three himself. I took his words seriously . . . or so I thought.
Despite all of our best efforts, our family simply was not prepared for the chaos that a third child would bring to our household and to our family life. But while the frenzy could have very easily pulled us apart at the seams, with a little bit of Lean and a lot of love, we managed to get ourselves back on the right path. And in doing so, we now live, laugh, learn and love more than we ever have before.
Although I’ve been writing about how we have applied Lean principles at home for quite some time, I’ve never told the whole story of how or why this way of thinking came to be in our household. What follows is the story of how my family started its Lean journey, and the three principles that you too can use to transform your family and achieve your ideal life.
Our Lean Journey
My wife and I started dating when we were in junior high school. By the time baby #3 arrived, we had been together for 16 years. Having literally grown up together, we thought that we would be able to tackle whatever life threw at us. We were wrong, at least for a little while.
With a third (sleep-deprived and screaming) child in the house, every day was a blur. It was especially hard for my wife who was home full-time with three kids, all of which were age 3 or younger. This became our family life. Simply getting through each day without significant injury or property damage, felt like a miracle. We were exhausted. Our stress levels skyrocketed. And we often took out our frustrations on the kids. No one was happy. This was not how we always pictured our big, happy family.
Already by the time our little man turned two months old, it was clear that the ways in which we were running the household were simply not going to work anymore. Not that we had any clue what or how to do to make it better. But then one day, maybe it was my wife’s brilliance finally shining out through the fog of sleeplessness, and maybe it was divine intervention, but one conversation would change everything.
Drained from another long day, my wife and I collapsed sat down on the sofa one evening with a couple large bottles of wine strong cups of coffee. Our gazes met each other with that zombie-like emptiness to which we had grown more than familiar. “Teach me about Lean,” she said flatly. (What???) Did the wine coffee kick in earlier than usual? That was not what I was expecting.
Over many years, I had developed quite an appetite for the study and practice of Lean thinking. However, save for a few nifty little tools here-and-there, that hunger never really carried over into our home life. Wanting to seize the opportunity, I sprang into action and did what any good continuous improvement professional would . . . I grabbed the kids’ dry erase board and a pack of markers and turned the living room into my own personal process improvement pulpit.
For the next few nights, fueled by a steady supply of caffeine and with the scent of dry erase markers in hanging the air, I taught my wife everything I knew about Lean. But, this was not your typical introduction to Lean class. I taught Lean how I had always dreamed of teaching it. I didn’t turn to a pre-made slide deck; I sketched everything as we talked. We didn’t focus on tools; we honed in on the underlying concepts, principles and mindsets. And not a single word of Japanese was spoken (okay, except for kaizen, but that’s practically an English word by now).
To her credit, my wife was a quick study. I knew that she “got it” on the third night when she made the comment, “so, Lean is really more about the people and the culture than anything else, isn’t it?” I’d never been so proud . . .
We spent the week taking a deep dive into the concepts of Lean thinking and talking about how to apply them at home, to get back to the family life that we had always dreamed of. We cut through most of the meaningless buzzwords and clichés that accompany the typical Lean training, and we focused on the critical few ideas that we could apply immediately.
By the end of the week, we had developed a plan based on three Lean principles for how we would conquer the chaos that had run rampant through our home. And do you know what? The plan worked. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy. But slowly and with a significant amount of effort from everyone in the family, it worked.
After a few months, there were clear signs that our happy family was back and better than ever. We had less stress, we had more energy, and we looked more forward to waking up in the morning than we did to going to bed at night. We even started dreaming about baby #4!
Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But it was clear that we had made significant strides toward our happy family ideals in just a few short months.
Our Lean Family Principles
The three principles that guide our family make up the foundation of what I feel Lean is all about. They are simple concepts, which means that any family can understand them and put them into practice. However, simple does not necessarily mean easy. Real continuous Improvement is difficult, especially in the beginning. It requires that we change the way we think and the things we do. It’s also not a quick fix; there are no shortcuts on the journey. It requires commitment over the long-haul and persistence in the face of obstacles and setbacks.
But if you are able to put these three principles into practice, commit to them over the long-haul, and persevere in the face of the obstacles and setbacks, I truly believe that you and your family will be on the path to your ideal life.
Principle #1. Pursue True North
What is your True North? True North is your ideal life. True North is your ultimate destination. Like a far off compass bearing, it is what provides us with a direction on our journey. Everything that we do, and everything that we attempt to achieve, should take us closer to our True North destination. And on the occasions when we stray from the path, it is by heading for our True North that we are able to get back on track. Although we may never reach True North, the main point is that every day our actions are focused on getting us a little bit closer to our ideal life.
With the frantic pace of modern life, it’s very easy – and very typical – for us to wander through life without direction. We make decisions and take actions without an ultimate goal to provide us with guidance on our journeys. Each step takes us in its own, random direction; the unfortunate result is that we look back on our lives and realize that we didn’t get very far. Even worse, in the context of a family, not only do we fail to make much progress, but each individual heads off in a unique direction, loosening the bonds of the family with each step.
My family has direction and a greater purpose because we have defined our True North ideals. Every day, we take steps – some big, but mostly small – to get us closer to our vision of ideal. In futures posts, I will share with you some of the details behind our True North. However, know that True North will be different for every individual and every family. There is no right or wrong answer to the question; that the question has been answered, and that the commitment to the answer has been made, is all that matters.
Life should be more than just a random sequence of steps. Each and every person should walk with a purpose . . . with a direction. Families need to stick together, until the time is right for the children to find their own calling. It all starts with – and ends with – the pursuit of True North.
Principle #2. Make the Invisible Problems Visible
What is preventing you and your family from living your ideal life? On the journey to True North, there are countless obstacles, pitfalls and roadblocks that stand in our way. Some we see coming; most, however, we choose not to see until it’s too late and we’re forced to take action.
Life’s problems are all around us. In this fast-paced, high-stress, five-cups-of-coffee-before-lunch world, our natural inclination is to put off to tomorrow that which is not going to burn our figurative houses to the ground today. Hope springs eternal that if we simply ignore our problems for long enough, maybe, just maybe, they will disappear.
Our conventional strategy is a farce. Grounded in blind hope and self-deception, the wait-and-see approach only compounds the magnitude of our problems over time. Real problems do not simply vanish; rather, when given time, they grow like a snowball tumbling down a mountainside of fresh powder. To prevent an avalanche, we need to eliminate our problems when they are still small and manageable. And because small problems are hard to find, we must deliberately take action to seek them out and make the invisible problems visible to us.
We are able to perceive a problem only when there is a gap between reality and our expectation. The reason that we struggle to identify problems in general is because, over the course of any given day in our lives, we set very few expectations for ourselves. Take tomorrow for instance. When you wake up, how much milk should there be in the refrigerator? How long should you be dedicating to the big project due next quarter? What chores should you get done before you go to sleep? How much money should you have stashed away for your child’s college education?
Without setting expectations, there is simply no way of knowing whether or not you have a problem. When will you find out? When you run out of milk, fall irreparably behind on the big project, forget to wash that outfit you were hoping to wear tomorrow, and take out a 2nd mortgage to pay the tuition bills. Small problems become BIG problems.
In our household, we have taken great lengths to set expectations for our days. From visual daily schedule boards for the kids, picture-based checklists for routine tasks (see below for examples), and visual activity planning, we manage our household in a way that makes small problems visible before they become big problems.
In future posts, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we develop, create and utilize the concepts of visual management in our household to bring the invisible into light.
Principle #3. Commit to Continuous Improvement
True North represents our ideal family life, and making problems visible tells us what is preventing us today from achieving those future aspirations. The question then becomes, how do you close the gaps between where you are now, and where you want to be in life?
When we identify an obstacle on our path to True North (and there will be many), we have a choice to make. Very simply, we can choose to go around the problem and deviate from our ultimate goal in the process, or we can choose to overcome the obstacle and to continue on our journey.
Solving life’s problems is not easy; it requires a substantial investment of time and energy, especially in the beginning before the required behavior and thought patters become habitual. It can, and will feel unmanageable at times. However, by recognizing each problem as an opportunity to remove another barrier from life’s path, we can draw on those negative emotions and use them as fuel to keep us motivated and engaged in our efforts.
In our household, the commitment to continuous improvement touches everyone in the family. As parents, teaching our kids the problem solving mindset is one of our chief priorities. We want to encourage our children at a young age to see problems not as a source of shame to be avoided, but as an opportunity to take pride in their achievements. Therefore, when they make an honest mistake, rather than resort to discipline, we partner with our children to solve the problem so that we all can learn from it. These Leanable Moments not only improve our parenting abilities, but also develop a skill in our children that is critical in all walks of life.
Keep an eye out for additional Leanable Moments in the near future to see some fun and creative solutions to common household problems.
What will life hold for you and for your family? Will you reach your True North, or will you get sidetracked and wander through life without a clear direction or greater purpose? Will you reach for your dreams, or will you live with the regret of what could have been? We may never know the answers to these questions.
However, if we create our own Personal True North, if we overcome the hidden obstacles that hold us back, and if we commit to continually improving our lives, little-by-little, day-by-day, we also cannot tell all of the great things that we can achieve in life.
How can you start your journey? Over the coming weeks, we will take a deeper dive into the three principles, helping you to create a plan to incorporate these concepts into your daily life. We will also look at more examples that show how my family has put the principles into practice on our journey.
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