The big idea: How can executives (or anyone) use what we know about process improvement to make their lives better — as well as improve the lives of everyone with whom they interact? Todd Pearson’s productivity transformation in his home, personal and work life is one in a series of Living Lean vignettes describing the holistic, real-world application of continuous process improvement principles.

The scenario: Pearson sleeps four hours a night and spends nearly that long in his daily commute; average time spent interacting with his two children younger than 5 amounts to only 90 minutes a day — and he feels tired and lethargic when his children ask for playtime on the floor so they can be with Daddy. His wife, Sarah, is feeling left out of his life. Something must be done.

The resolution: Todd and Sarah map out his day and then discuss Todd’s goals and priorities. Not only is Todd a professional and a family man, but he’s also finishing up an executive MBA, which requires study and class time. He wants to reduce his commute, increase his time spent sleeping and become more engaged when he spends time with his family. The couple also identify areas of muda, which is the Japanese word for “waste.” Waste is defined as anything that doesn’t add value to the outcome. The ways in which value is defined and measured are critical, because one person’s ceiling is another’s floor. There are eight kinds of waste: excess transportation, excess inventory, unnecessary waiting, excess motion, overproduction, over-processing, too many defects, and untapped human potential or creativity. The couple think critically about schedule changes that will reduce waste.

They decide on a plan. Todd shifts his commute to earlier in the day, because he realizes the Capital Beltway rush hour is a big source of excess waiting and transportation muda. He also switches gyms and joins one within walking distance of work, which serves the double duty of forcing him to leave the office during his lunch hour to refresh himself instead of working through it. He moves activities such as readying the next day’s lunch and clothing from the beginning of the day to the end because they don’t take as much brainpower as studying, which he schedules after the kids go to sleep.

Through a series of small, incremental changes, Todd soon begins to feel the benefit to his home life; the big surprise comes when he realizes that the improvements are spilling over into work, too. He and his staff begin to use the same techniques of muda elimination in the office, including setting up a SharePoint database (which reduces over-processing), moving furniture and equipment (reducing excess motion) and creating a batch system for office tasks — all of which, taken together, allow his staff members to leave the office early enough to skip rush hour as well.

Todd continues to engage in what we like to call the relentless pursuit of the elimination of waste. He’s better able to manage his energy, be present with his family and produce results at work. And he sleeps seven hours every night.

The lesson: Process improvement principles are meaningless until they’re linked to “top-line metrics” — measurements that we decide best reflect progress toward our strategic goals — and top-line metrics are not the same for every area of life. Being present with ourselves and our families, managing our energy (not just our time), and working to preserve some “white space,” or free time, is just as crucial as the business metrics we all know and love: net profit and sales growth.

Elliott Weiss and Rebecca Goldberg

Weiss is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and Goldberg is a consultant and management educator.

Todd’s day
Current Lean
Sleep 4 Sleep 7
Gym & Prep 2.5 Prep .5
Commute 2 Commute 1
Work (a.m.) 5.5 Work (a.m.) 4.25
Lunch 1 Gym 1.25
Work (p.m.) 4 Work (p.m.) 4
Commute 2 Commute 1
Family/Dinner 1.5 Family/Dinner 3
Study/Prep 1.5 Study/Prep 2