Process Improvement and Public Housing:Lean is Like Learning a Second Language

I speak with a lot of housing authority staff from around the country and one of the first thing people ask me about lean is, “How do I get started?”  I often respond by giving resources like books, Youtube links, websites and even local resources if I have time.  Starting a process improvement initiative or movement within a housing authority can seem like a daunting task.  However; the best thing to do is start educating yourself and using the tools/knowledge as quickly as possible.

Language Learning:

I started learning German in 2014 at the age of 32.  The challenge of learning a second language is of course immense but doable.  I went to classes, I studied vocabulary and learned grammar.  I practiced every single day at home, on the bus and at the gym.  However; I could not speak German or hold a discussion with a friend.  The major change came when I got over my embarrassment and started actively using what I learned with Germans in Germany. I made a ton of mistakes but my proficiency grew 10x quicker.  I speak pretty fluently now but I still make mistakes.  What is important is that I can speak the language in most situations  while still trying to improve on the edges.

Lean as a Language:

Not long ago someone referred to lean as a social religion.  I laughed because it can get a little cult-y sometimes if you are not careful.  That comment made me think about lean a little differently though.  Lean is a fully loaded management system that comes with structure, strategy, rules and tools.  Learning lean does take time, patience and the willingness to get in front of people and sometimes muddle through it.  In many ways, it reminds me of learning a language.  When do you go from learning to doing?  At what point do you take the knowledge learned and jump into the deep end?

Just Do It:

My suggestion would be the same as if you were learning another language.  The sooner you apply what you learn, the quicker you will become fluent.  For example, if you learn about problem solving using PDCA or DMAIC, you should start solving problems using the method right away.  You might not have all the tools down completely, but just putting the structure around it could make a world of difference.  You might learn about personal Kanban or visual management early on.  Go ahead and pop up a visual board and work on it over time. It might not be the final draft but getting use to the idea of utilizing this important tool will be helpful. It does not really matter where you start with lean, the important thing is to build up your comfort level and confidence.

Long Term:

As you continue down your personal or agency lean journey, it is important to grow your knowledge base and understand the entire management system.  Speaking from personal experience, most of us start with process improvement and visual management.  However; it is important to learn about strategy deployment and how to create a clear line of site from strategic goals down to front line staff doing the work.  That part is more complicated but helps an agency reach its full potential and start firing on all cylinders. Tying it back to language learning, we would not only learn vocabulary and phrases.  Without the grammar and rules we would be using the language wheely neely.  We need the structure to help us fully reach our potential.  The same is true with lean.  We need to learn all aspects of it to really reach our goals.


I started using a new tool recently (value stream mapping)  and to be honest was a little gun shy to get up in front of a group and facilitate with it. I read the bible on visual mapping –Learning to See- and visited friends from other housing authorities using the tool.  I watched YouTube videos on using the tool and read countless blogs.  I had to let go and just let it rip.  I am actively using value stream mapping now and each session I learn something new.  Do I think my first map was worthless because my second and third were better?  No.  Visually representing the work we do with data behind it will always be valuable even if better iterations could be had.  Long story short, start doing right from the start.  That is not a license to quit learning.  Just like a language, lean is a long journey.  You will never know it all and there will always be personal improvements to be made.

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