Home > The Lean Post> Lean Fitness: The Individual vs. the Organization
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Lean Fitness: The Individual vs. the Organization

by Dan Markovitz
October 1, 2015

Lean Fitness: The Individual vs. the Organization

by Dan Markovitz
October 1, 2015 | Comments (3)

A featured speaker at the 2016 Lean Transformation Summit, register now!

Don’t try finding a spot on the Stairmaster or in the spin class on January 8th. The busiest week of the year at a gym is the second week of the new year. Fueled by an excess of calories from too much food and drink during the holiday season, people make resolutions to lose weight, work out, and get fit. The gym is packed as tightly as people are packed into their spandex. Of course, by February the gym is back to normal. Most people predictably abandon their resolutions in short order—they’re bored, they’re busy, they’re sick, they’re tired. Life gets in the way. They lack the commitment (or know-how) to sustain their fitness initiative, and the next thing you know, they’re anxiously searching for diet and fitness tips to wriggle into their bathing suits for the summer.

Organizations aren’t so different from individuals. Preceding the new fiscal year, the management team announces its goal to capture the top spot in the marketplace, rolls out 37 new strategic initiatives, and vows to elevate employee engagement and become a great place to work. By the second quarter, it’s business as usual. Organizations get caught up trying to make the monthly or quarterly numbers; departments are overwhelmed by the multitude of new (and often contradictory) initiatives for which they lack the people or the resources; and employees feel no more connection to the company’s leadership and vision than they did before. The organization loses momentum on its initiatives, often fails to achieve its stated goals, and waddles along until the next annual strategic offsite, whereupon the cycle repeats itself.

For both the individual and the organization, the problem is the same. There may be a stated goal—lose 15 pounds, improve muscle tone—but there’s often no clearly defined program to reach that fitness goal. Or even if there is a program, it may simply be a fad that promises huge results with minimal effort: think vibrating belts, Thighmasters, 8 Minute Abs, and the latest diet pills. More significantly, for the people who abandon their fitness efforts, going to the gym and exercising is something that’s external to the daily flow of their lives. It’s a chore that requires additional time and commitment, not something that’s as fundamental and core to their lives as, say, going to work, or playing with their kids, or even brushing their teeth.

In the same way, most organizations have annual goals—take the top spot in the market, lift employee engagement— but they lack clearly defined improvement programs to reach their goals. As with individuals, there is no end to the number of business fads that promise to get companies to the promised land—emotional intelligence, six sigma, business process reengineering, management by walking around, etc. But efforts to achieve those goals are episodic (at best) or sporadic (at worst), because they’re not seen as integral to the organization’s daily operations. They’re made “when we have some free time,” or before the boss asks about them at the quarterly performance review.

Truly fit individuals don’t so much make a generic commitment to exercise as much as they weave exercise and health into the daily fabric of their lives. They bike to work. They take the stairs rather than the elevator. They meet friends for weekend runs with their dogs. Similarly, truly fit organizations don’t so much make a commitment to an improvement “program” per se, as build improvement into the way they operate on an ongoing basis, everyday. They have a simple process for collecting improvement suggestions. They hold daily huddles to discuss problems. Managers and senior leaders regularly walk through the office and join discussions about problems. Projects are posted on office and shop walls for everyone to see.

Instilling and nurturing this continuous improvement culture sets the fit organization up for long-term success.

It’s time for a new way of thinking about lean. The ugly truth is that despite cutting down half the Amazon to print books that analyze the Toyota Production System, the number of organizations that have actually achieved a lean transformation—or even maintained a commitment to continuous improvement—is vanishingly small. Most organizations abandon their efforts midstream, or, daunted by the challenges of understanding lean concepts, don’t even attempt to adapt and adopt the lessons from Toyota to their own businesses. So let’s stop talking about heijunka, muda, and water spiders, and instead start talking about organizational fitness—a language that everyone can understand.

Building the Fit Organization is a practical, hands-on guide that walks you through the process of making lean as intrinsic to your company as the pursuit of profits. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Was this post... Click all that apply
11 people say YES
16 people say YES
13 people say YES
12 people say YES
Related Posts
3 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt October 01, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

If we are going to stop talking Heijunka, Muda, and Water Striders, we are getting away from the very foundation of the TPS. So while we're at it, do we stop talking about the TPS house? And do I stop talking terms that I have learned from my Sensei's?

Sorry, but I can't go down that path.


Reply »

dan markovitz October 01, 2015
7 People AGREE with this reply


We don't force high school math students to learn German when they study calculus because Gottfried Leibniz (one of the inventors of calculus) was German and described the theories in German. Nor do we force reglious studies students to read the bible in Latin because it was first written down in Latin. We allow them to master the concepts in their own language before we hit them with the language of origin. 

Okay, I'm being a bit snarky here, but I'm not aruguing that we completely dispose of Japanese terms. If people want to use those terms, by all means, go ahead. But if they're not ready for them, let's provide an easier cognitive onramp to get them going on the lean journey -- and then, when they're ready and willing, we can give them all the Japanese they want. 

Let's think "both/and" instead of "either/or."



Reply »

DANIELA December 14, 2016

I totaly love your article

it´s truth that it´s easier to understand what we know and we are not all japonese but we all know what the gym is haha

i like the way you see lean i would like to know a lot more



Reply »

Lean Roundup: Hoshin Kanri
Put Your Strategy on a Diet
What Strategy Is and What It's Not
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean