WARNING: The following content contains graphic images of a baby eating dinner, which may be disturbing to anyone planning to some day start a family. Reader discretion is advised.
After nearly 2 months, Leanable Moments are back, taking you inside my family life to show you how I apply Lean problem solving to take the waste out of life. Today’s Leanable Moment examines one of the most frustrating experiences in the life of being a parent: feeding solid foods to a six month old baby.
It’s the sort of thing you have to experience to truly understand how absolutely maddening it can be. On the list of things I’d like to be doing with my life, feeding a baby falls somewhere between sitting in traffic for several hours and being audited by the IRS. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, I HIGHLY recommend going for gemba walk before reading further. Seriously, go find a baby – any baby – and ask the parents if you can feed him or her a jar of “Purple Roots and Fruits Yogurt Mish Mash“. Trust me, mom or dad will thank you and might even try to hire you full-time.
For those reading this without a baby at home – or without access to someone else’s baby – please bare with me. The good news is that this post is not really about feeding babies. No, this post is about the mindset needed to see the waste in your life and the thinking required to make it disappear. This post is about how small problems can have hugely unexpected consequences. And more than anything, this post is about finding the inspiration to respect your time and to rid your life of the things that do not add any value to it. It just so happens that I am reminded of my inspiration every time I look into my son’s adoring eyes . . . while desperately trying to land the imaginary rutabaga and banana airplane in its hangar without spilling its payload all over his face.
So, for those of you who I have not completely grossed out, I present to you the story of how I applied Lean problem solving to overcome the baby feeding frenzy.
1. The Current Condition
I could try to describe in words the virtual crime scene that becomes of my dinner table at feeding time, but I thought that I’d let this short video say it better than I ever could.
Now imagine that 7 second clip repeated 40 to 50 times, the facial debris accumulating with each successive swallow, and you have a pretty good understanding of the current condition.
Even after raising two daughters previously, I had no idea exactly how much family time was wasted on baby feeding until I sat down and observed the entire end-to-end process. Accomplishing the task of actually feeding the baby averaged 17 minutes by itself. However, much effort was required afterwards to eliminate the collateral damage in the form of baby food on the high-chair tray, on the high-chair seat cover, on the table, on the walls and on the floor. This added an extra 14 minutes to the process. Then, the baby’s face, arms hands – and occasionally even hair – had to be thoroughly wiped down which added on another 4 minutes. The high-chair cover, the bib and usually whatever outfit he was wearing also needed to be put into the wash, which I conservatively estimated added an additional 7 minutes of loading, unloading and folding time. In total, over the course of a week, we were spending 497 minutes (or 8.2 hours) feeding and cleaning up after the new baby!
There are quite a few lessons learned here. First and foremost, this case illustrates what happens when we accept problems as being “normal” or “just the way things are”. You may feel that babies are just messy . . . that raising a family requires massive amounts of time and patience . . . that life, in general, just doesn’t go your way sometimes. And while all of these statements may indeed be true, it doesn’t mean that you have to accept it! By accepting your current condition as it is, you will simply never see the waste in your life. Place the focus instead on thinking about what could or should be, and you will learn to see the world through a whole new lens of possibility.
Second, it’s important to look at the things that we do as processes in order to grasp the total impact that our actions have. If I looked at feeding the baby as a single action, I may not have realized that the majority of the time that is wasted occurs in the subsequent activities required to clean-up. Solving the right problems in business and in life requires that we see the “bigger picture” by defining and assessing the end-to-end processes in which our problems occur.
Last, but certainly not least. Seemingly little problems can have a massive impact, especially when allowed to repeat over and over again. Our psychology tends to only drive us to action based on the outcomes of the individual cases. In other words, we generally react only when big problems occur – the baby is sick, the customer is angry, the building is on fire – and we ignore little problems no matter how often they occur. In the case of feeding the baby, an extra 10 to 20 minutes may not be a call to action by itself, but factor in the 14 weekly repetitions and the time really adds up! I may sound like I am beating a dead horse on this blog, but I will take this opportunity to state it again: focus on solving small problems. They can, and usually do, have big impacts.
2. The Target Condition
After several rounds of observations, I knew that improving the process required keeping more food in my son’s mouth and less on the chair, table, walls, etc . . . Therefore, I aimed the target condition for the process at preventing the baby food from venturing any further than the bib. In doing so, we could nearly eliminate clean up time altogether, prevent any excess laundering, and because more food would be getting into his mouth, even improve my son’s nutrition as well. Based on the initial time study, I estimated that the entire process could reasonably be reduced to 10 minutes per feeding, which would free up almost 6 hours of family time every week!
3. Cause Analysis
For full disclosure, the cause analysis was fairly straightforward, as the process of feeding the baby is highly repeatable and easily observable. Cause analysis is much more difficult in situations where the process is not stable or well-controlled (high-variability) or where the effects of the process are difficult to observe (too fast, too small, inside of a complex IT system, etc . . . ).
To better understand the underlying causes of the problem, I started by splitting the cause analysis into its two component issues. The first investigating why it takes so long to feed the baby, and the second looking at why it takes so long to clean up afterwards.
The long feeding time was being driven by an oh-so-quaint little habit that my son has exhibited since his very first taste of liquefied snap peas. As can be seen in the video above, as soon as food hits his taste buds, in pops his fist into his mouth. Why this occurs is a difficult matter to break down. The habit loop, described in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, suggests that habits form when a trigger causes a behavior, which in turn yields a reward. While the trigger and the action in this case are clear – food on the tongue creates the cue to insert fist in mouth – the reward needed to break the habit loop is unclear. As such, I chalked it up to some biological motivator of baby behavior and stopped there.
On the other hand, no pun intended, another reason that my son’s hand enters his mouth after tasting food is because there’s nothing to stop it from doing so. With one of my hands holding the packet of baby food, and the other holding the spoon, I do not have a hand free to prevent him from digging in his mouth for toothy treasure. Fending off my son’s hand, and by extension reducing the time it takes to feed him, requires liberating one of my own.
It doesn’t take long to realize that when his hand goes into his mouth, it doesn’t exactly come out clean. Food sticks to the hand, which manages to transfer the pureed prunes to whatever he can get those grimy mitts on: the wall, the table, the high-chair, and my personal favorite, his hair. It may seem quite silly to say, but my son putting his hand in his own mouth while eating may have resulted in over 5 hours a week in lost family time by itself!
As secondary mechanism of messiness was a small amount of food being spit back out of my son’s mouth with each spoonfull. Initially, I had the inclination to chalk it up to another uncontrollable byproduct of babyhood until my wife made the observation that the spit up didn’t really happen during breakfast. A comparison of his breakfast food to his dinner food revealed a major difference, and what was ultimately determined to be the root cause of the baby food drool. His breakfast foods were all mixed with some sort of grain, which thickens the baby food substantially; without the grains, the dinner food was significantly more runny and consequently, more difficult for him to swallow.
In the end, the cause analysis yielded two potential root causes on which to apply countermeasures: 1.) keeping his hand out of his mouth and 2.) thickening the consistency of his dinner food.
Thickening up the food was a relative no-brainer, thanks to inexpensive and age-appropriate grains that we were able to mix into his dinner food. They worked like a charm to end the spitting problem.
Keeping his hand out of his mouth, however, was a bit more tasking. My first attempt, putting a toy in each one of his hands, failed miserably. The toys ended up on the tray to the high-chair, only to be later covered in stewed tomatoes and thrown to the floor for a good chuckle on my son’s part. Chalk it up to poor planning on my part.
For my second attempt, I decided that I would free up one of my owns hands to defend his mouth against his filthy fists of fury. I tried holding the bowl of food on my lap, but the long distance that the spoon had to travel to get to his mouth caused some spillage and a pair of my shorts to be sent directly to the hamper. After doing a little bit of internet research, I ordered a baby food bowl with a small suction cup on the bottom that would stick to the high-chair tray. Without needing to hold on to the bowl, my right hand was now free to deal with his digits before they ended up in his gullet.
And although he wouldn’t hold a toy in his hand for very long, I somewhat accidentally I discovered that he would hold two of my fingers firmly in his grasp, which meant no more hands in his mouth. I’d like to think it’s his way of saying thank you for getting the food into his tummy and away from his hair. He can’t exactly afford to lose more any at this point!
Did the countermeasures work? Did the thicker food go down easier? Did his hands remain occupied with mine, instead of creating a macaroni massacre? See for yourself. The image on the left represents the initial condition and was taken after dinner before implementing any of the countermeasures. The image on the right was taken the very next evening after the piloting of both corrective actions. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; if so, these two say “problem solved” 500 times over!
As far as the impact, hold on to your seats. Feeding time was reduced to around 6 minutes per meal, and without any residual food on the surrounding surfaces, cleanup time fell to less than a minute. Multiplied out by 14 meals per week, and these two small actions saved us 6.4 hours every week! That’s 6.4 more hours of living, loving, laughing and learning, which in my book, is simply priceless.
- Train your brain to see problems by envisioning what could be or what should be, rather than focusing on what is. Eliminating the waste from life requires that we not accept the status quo, no matter how normal, mundane, routine or typical the situation may appear.
- The full impact of our problems are rarely well-understood before taking action. Seemingly small problems often have major effects, especially when left to repeat time and again. Do not just focus on what appear to be big problems; focus on solving today’s problem, regardless of the perceived weight.
- The underlying causes of problems are more easily diagnosed when the process is repeatable and observable. Assessing the signal may require that we first cut out the noise by simplifying, standardizing and making our problems visible.
Have you solved a problem in a unique or innovative way that you would like to contribute to Leanable Moments? Simply click here or use the Contact the KaiZone link at the top of the page and tell me about it!