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Every Covid Cloud Has A Silver Lining?

1 June 2020

What strange, uncertain and frankly terrifying times we are all living in. The world feels like it’s completely falling apart. In amidst a sea of uncertainty, injustice and heartbreak all I feel I can do is attempt to look at the positives.  

As a full-time working mum, pre Covid 19, my life was frantic, “Get ready, get ready, quick! Got your bag? Tuesday – Sports kit … Wednesday – Ballet shoes, traffic, drop-off at school, traffic, traffic, work, which building? Main. Meeting. Actions. Which building? Aberconway. Meeting. Actions. What’s the time? Have you picked her up? Great.” Repeat until death. 

There’s repetition now too of course… “Don’t touch that! Wipe that down! Wash your hands! Boris said what?!’ but there is a stillness which I’m enjoying. There’s as much work to do as ever but I’m not missing the rush between places, ping-ponging my way around Cardiff daily, feeling frazzled and always behind. There are new feelings of course, an ache for my family, for fun with my friends, for longing for the time when I could pick up a letter that popped through my front door without fear of contracting a deadly virus.  

So the juxtaposition of extremes is disconcerting – the quietness and calmness of living within a severely reduced geography but one that is coupled with mental anguish, longing and fear the likes of which I’ve never experienced.   

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t think at this point, does lean have anything to say about this (here we go I hear my readers cry!) because hey, this is a lean blog after all… but alas, I can’t easily draw parallels between the existential angst and global turmoil that we are all facing and the ‘Components of Successful Organisations’ at the moment. Sorry! 

What I can think about perhaps are the different types of work that I find myself post lockdown vs. pre. 

One of the most important ideas that underpins lean is the work of Maasaki Imai in his book Gemba Kaizen where he outlines the amount of time different people should spend on different activities in work in order to create a learning organisation, dedicated to positive improvement.  Peter Hines interpreted Imai’s classic “Kaizen Flag” (Kaizen meaning “change for the better” and flag, because well, the image looks like a flag) for modern day life as follows:

It’s an important image for lean because it clearly expresses that everybody, whatever their level within the organisation, needs to dedicate time to improvement activity or ‘kaizen’.  It also shows us that the majority of a senior person’s time should be spent in the ‘strategy’ zone, setting the direction of the organisation and leading the systems required to make work happen. Critically, as you move through the different levels within the organisation everybody is also involved in ‘strategy’. This is key because the operatives are usually the people creating the most direct value in the organisation and are often the closest to customers and are best therefore to both enable strategy and to help to shape strategy. 

Another important element is that senior members of staff are not so detached from the day job. They stay in contact with the core business of the company, interact with staff at all levels and use this to inform their strategy work. 

This situation is rare however and most organisations find themselves with kaizen flags more akin to the below:

The realities of many senior members of staff’s lives is that they are just responding to crisis after crisis, problem after problem. Strategy is a nice to have, once a year reflection, post rationalization process.   Improvement is a responsibility assigned to a few middle managers (usually on top of another job that they have), where they endeavour to help those that work for them ‘be better’ and covertly attempt to influence those more senior to ‘be better’ too.   Insufficient focus on strategy and improvement activity leads to the huge amount of ‘fire fighting’ or ‘failure demand’ that organisations have to deal with.

So what does the Covid 19 Kaizen Flag look like?  Maybe I’m having a rare moment of optimism (VERY RARE FYI) but perhaps now we have more time? Maybe the world paused for a moment and whilst it’s not true that fires don’t still need to be fought, this situation has caused many, but perhaps now that we’ve all stopped rushing about (well most of us – all praise to the key workers!) what’s more important work wise has been pulled sharply into view?  For example, Universities ARE making big strategic decisions about how to pivot their offer and are rapidly moving into a space of improvement, gearing up lecturers to deliver teaching differently, to embrace new tools to protect our value proposition. We are embracing new ways of working at a phenomenal pace. Fire fighting is still happening of course, but are we thinking more about strategy, improvement and change than we have for a long time? Not the perfect picture, but perhaps more close to ideal?

Is this similar to your experience or not? Let me know but from my perspective, if right now doesn’t provide the opportunity to regroup and refocus, to change and improve, I don’t know what will.


1 comment
  1. Ingrid Fiedler

    Yes, I can relate. My inspirational phrase for now is “Let it burn.” I think that as women and mothers there is a tendency to want to put out every fire, and we carry that into our professional lives. Sometimes the ship needs to BURN so that we don’t turn from the fight, sometimes the lab needs to BURN, so that we stop returning to old experiments, sometimes x needs to BURN so that we can y. Let those fires BURN.

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