Leanable Moments take you inside my home life to show you how I apply Lean thinking to real-world problems. Each Leanable Moment is presented in A3 format – simply click the image to enlarge – and includes discussion focusing on the finer points of the problem solving process – the type of things they don’t necessarily teach you in Lean training! Each discussion will conclude with a summary of key lessons learned, going beyond the boundaries of just one problem to take the waste out of life.
I will not soon forget the roller coaster ride that was the year 2013 for me. Suffice it is to say that it had its share of ups: my wife and I welcomed our third child to the world and I changed companies to take a major step forward in my career; and downs: I’m commuting 60 miles every day into Northern New Jersey due to a change in job location, and I spent 6 months recovering from a minor knee operation due to an allergic reaction and an infection. When the December holidays finally allowed for some much needed relaxation, I took the time to reflect on 2013. Despite the peaks and valleys, I was proud for all that my family and I had accomplished in 2013 and the outlook for 2014 seemed bright. Then I looked in the mirror.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the bulbous face staring back dictated to me the novella of my 2013 in an instant. I invested a great deal of energy throughout the year in managing through the seemingly constant change. Unbeknownst to me until that moment, the price I paid was my health. Fortunately, the approaching New Year provided just the impetus I needed to set things in a different direction. Unfortunately, of those people who commit to a New Year’s resolution, only 8% reach their goals. For the non-statisticians out there, those aren’t very good odds!
Whatever I was going to do, I knew it had to be different than the way most people approach their New Year’s resolution. But how? How would I start to understand the underlying causes of my poor health? How would I set meaningful goals that would keep me on the path to my true north destination? How would I develop habits of wellness and commit to a long-term healthy lifestyle? Exactly how does someone who preaches the value of Lean thinking for a living – and not to mention operates a Lean blog purely as a hobby – attempt to improve his health? Good guess!
In the above A3, you’ll find the story of how I applied Lean thinking to set the foundation for a long-term healthy lifestyle, using a simple strategy to add years to my life with minimal effort.
<WARNING! Awful cliché approaching!> You could say, I used Lean to get lean!
I warned you . . .
The Target Condition
With the growing pains of a new job, nearly two-and-a-half hours of daily commuting time and three children under the age of four, the operative word for my wellness strategy would be: SIMPLE SIMPLER SIMPLEST. Because of my current lifestyle, I needed to challenge myself to define the simplest possible approach for improving my health, allowing me to meet my goals with minimal additional effort on my part. Any strategy that required a significant outlay of time, money or effort would – simply – not succeed.
I started by doing some soul searching to better define what healthy really meant to me. I was able to boil my personal wellness needs down to three priorities:
- Lose Weight. An obvious choice, but an important one. Excess weight has been shown in countless studies to increase our risks of major health problems including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. However, determining an ideal (target) body weight, requires more than just the number on the scale. Body composition, the amount of body fat relative to lean body mass, is also of critical importance. Therefore, I used this reference to set my weight loss goals of 171 lbs. at 15% body fat by the end of 2014.
- Build Strength. Despite being an athlete for most nearly all of my pre-college life, I’ve always been somewhat of a weakling. Ten years of working in an office sapped what little strength I had built in my earlier years. A lack of stability was likely the underlying cause of the back and knee pain I had been experiencing for the past few years. Not to mention, building a little muscle was a very important customer requirement (from my wife). I chose a very simple exercise, the bench press, to monitor my gains in strength. As I had never before in my life been able to bench press more than 165 lbs., I set a target goal of 185 lbs. by the end of 2014.
- Protect My Heart. Although nearly all body parts are important a family history of cardiovascular disease amongst my grandparents placed my heart at the top of my priority list. I used blood pressure as my primary measure of heart health, targeting a value of below 120/80 by the end of 2014.
The Current Condition
On 29-Dec-2013, I recorded the baseline for each of my targeted metrics. My very own current condition put into perspective exactly how bad my health truly had become. For my height, my starting weight of 204.3 pounds and 31% body fat put me in the overweight category, on the verge of obesity. My strength had been reduced significantly since I remembered from my college days, with a one-rep max bench press of only 135 pounds . However, of particular concern was my blood pressure. Three readings averaged out to 140/86, which translates to a cardiovascular state somewhere between prehypertension and stage 1 hypertension. I was at serious risk for developing heart disease later in life.
To see the bigger picture, however, I placed my data into a life expectancy calculator developed by the University of Pennsylvania. Living well into my 80s has always been a given in the back of my mind; the data, however, predicted otherwise. My life expectancy was a mere 78.75 years.
To simplify the analysis, I didn’t evaluate every potential cause for my lack of wellness. Instead, I focused the analysis on just the critical few factors. It was no surprise that at a high level, my unhealthy behavior was rooted in a failure to eat properly and a lack of exercise. However, I was surprised to learn that the same cycle of events was at the foundation of both issues. After several days of self-observation, I learned that I tended to eat poorly – in terms of quality and quantity of food – at times of the day when I was feeling particularly tired or stressed. I knew I was eating the wrong kinds of food, but I chose to anyway because I sought the comfort of food to take my mind off of the negative feelings I was experiencing in that moment. It was as if the stress of life depleted the energy that I needed to make better decisions about the foods that I ate.
Similarly, stress and lack of energy became the scapegoat for my lack of exercise. I knew that I should be exercising regularly; however, when the opportunity presented itself, I would choose not to and convince myself that I was either too busy or that I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t have the energy because I was not exercising; I was not exercising because I didn’t have the energy. It was a vicious cycle.
Why wasn’t I eating well? Why wasn’t I exercising more? The underlying root causes in both cases were strikingly similar. Major life changes in the past year had significantly increased the level of stress in my life, which sapped my willpower and led me to make poor health decisions. <conclusion>
Experience told me that I needed to address the root cause of the problem in order to improve my situation. However, my strategy for improvement required that I identify the simplest possible strategy for improving my health. So, when I first started to look for opportunities to address the root cause of the problem, my increased stress levels, I had difficulty finding non-complex solutions. The stresses had accumulated due to major life changes, like a new job and a growing family; short of packing up and moving the family closer to work– anything but a simple solution – I needed to look for other plans of attack.
Instead, I considered a different component of the root cause statement: ways in which I could improve the choices I made in relation to food and exercise. Initially, improving my willpower to make better health decisions seemed as big of a challenge as reducing my stress; certainly, it did not seem a simple solution could be effective. That is, until I researched the topic by reading the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. Two very important pieces of information about willpower ultimately allowed me to identify a very simple solution to my poor health decisions:
- Willpower works just like a muscle in your body. It has a finite capacity to do work, and becomes depleted with repeated use. In other words, the more we try to resist temptation in general, the weaker our willpower becomes.
- When it comes to seeking food to reduce stress, it’s not the food itself that provides the reward; it’s the anticipation of the bad food that creates the craving. Similarly, when it comes time to exercise, it isn’t the exercise itself that we seek to avoid; it was the anticipation of the exercise that drives us to prioritize other activities – like eating bad food!
Making bad health decisions is obviously bad for our health. But by resisting temptation and making good health choices, we strain our willpower “muscle”, making it more likely that we will eventually give in to our cravings. It’s no wonder that most attempts to become healthy fail over time! So how did I overcome my limited ability to resist making bad decisions? By simplifying. Instead of attempting to improve my willpower and rely on good decision making, I created a system in which I eliminated the decisions and the anticipation altogether. I created standardized work for a healthy lifestyle.
Each day, I greet the morning with a green smoothie, which I prepared fresh the previous evening. Mid-morning, I snack on a stash of organic nuts and dried fruits that I maintain in a convenient location to keep my energy high until the ding on my phone reminds me it’s time for my noon workout. That is, the workout I blocked off on my calendar, just like the countless meetings that I can’t seem to avoid. I follow the gym with a pre-made salad topped with grilled chicken or sushi if I’m feeling exotic. A piece of fresh fruit mid-afternoon tides me over until dinner, which has been scheduled and prepared ahead of time by my wife. Soon, it’s time for bed and the start of a new day. Time to repeat the cycle all over again. And again. And again.
Standardization has nearly eliminated the temptations that previously drove me to eat poorly and to skip the gym. Healthy habits are now no more a choice for me than getting dressed or taking a shower. I do not question whether I can squeeze them into a busy day and I do not look to substitute less healthy activities in their place. They are, simply, what I do as part of my day. And because I no longer rely on willpower to overcome bad decisions, my defenses against an infrequent craving are much stronger, and my commitment does not waver over time.
Am I perfect? No. I am still human after all. I still have an occasional treat that wouldn’t exactly be considered healthy. The major difference is now I choose to do so because I want to, not because I have to.
Verify and Standardize
Thanks to Lean thinking, and in particular the rigorous pursuit of simplicity, I am living a truly healthy lifestyle for the first time in my life. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the data:
The weight loss of 17.3 pounds does not tell the whole story. Based on the reduction in body fat from 31% to 22%, I’ve actually lost 22.2 pounds of fat and gained 4.9 pounds of lean mass.
The increase in muscle has driven an even greater increase in strength, as I have already exceeded my year-end goal in the bench press by 20 lbs. I’ve even been forced to increase my year-end goal from 185 pounds to 250 pounds.
The improved diet and frequent exercise also delivered a significant reduction in my blood pressure, bringing me down well into the healthy range.
Of all the numbers, however, the change in Life expectancy was by far the most impactful to me. With the simple changes I have been able to make over just the last 3 months, I have added the equivalent of 7.5 years on to my life!
To ensure that I continue to make progress towards my goals, I check the status of my personal metrics on a weekly basis: every Saturday morning before breakfast. Moreover, as a means of holding myself accountable, I will provide quarterly updates here on TheKaiZone.com .
- Relentlessly pursue simplicity when addressing a complex problem. One of my favorite Lean authors, Pascal Dennis, recently published a series of articles entitled Strategy Deployment and Dieting (see Part 1 and Part 2) noting that, when it comes to strategy, “more companies die from over-eating than from starvation”. Strategies must be simple if we as humans are to internalize them. Large, complex strategies do nothing but alienate and frustrate the people who must execute them, and are generally not sustainable in the long-term.
- A few small changes can be transformational. By making a few minor tweaks to my daily routine, I added 7.5 years to my life in just 3 months. Large, slow and ineffective solutions (like fad diets or the projects that constitute the portfolios of most organizations) are necessary when we do not take the time to learn and lack understanding of the current condition. Simple and effective solutions arise from a firm grasp on the problem we are attempting to address and its underlying causes. This is the true spirit of kaizen and spreading this thinking is the mission of TheKaiZone.
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!