The management and production techniques and principles grounding a Lean approach are popular among people trying to run big organizations, like factories or hospitals. Lean principles originally came to light at Toyota in the 1980s and turned that company around. Running and designing ‘lean’ has a lot to do with crafting efficiencies and streamlining wasteful areas. That is, its not so much about speeding up the flow of production as it is about removing waste in a manner that preserves value with less work. Today, the popularity of Lean is part and parcel of the trend toward sustainability. Efficiency, reduction of waste, and elegant solutions are all important elements for removing financial and material overruns from organizational processes, and have proven highly successful for some organizations.

Part of the irony of modern life, however, is that such innovations in efficiency that should ultimately improve quality of life, can come at a price for human health. We suffer from the sitting disease. Have you ever used an instant message to communicate with someone in the next room? Has an automated system ever replaced the need to physically look for something? Has a machine ever taken your manufacturing job and now you work behind a computer? It turns out that the amount of calories you expend on a daily basis doing normal kinds of things really adds up when it comes to staying slim and healthy. This phenomena is called NEAT — Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

According to James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, A desk-bound man or woman takes only 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day. That compares with about 18,000 steps a day for the average man and 14,000 for a woman in an Amish community. The average sedentary lifestyle prevents the burning of 1,500-2,400 calories per day. Thats about equal to 1-2 times the amount of calories needed to live at all, its like you could have fed a whole other person while you were just sitting there!

At this point in the post, you’re probably wondering what NEAT has to do with LEAN. Well, we could make our hallways longer or our work processes more manual, but this does not necessarily serve the triple bottom line, and is not always efficient for businesses in the modern world. So what to do? Architectural solutions to inactivity can help get people moving, as can technological incentives like Gruve. Now, we need to figure out how organizational techniques can promote such health-affirming daily steps while sustaining efficiency.

Are there ways for simple movements to somehow increase efficiency? Maybe our brains would be clearer for working if we took real lunch breaks, getting up from our desks and eating outside. Perhaps attending professional events that move us out of the office while teaching us more about our industries could help in the long run. Wed love to hear your thoughts on how to find the sweet spot between efficiency and activity in daily life.

Image credits: Jim Crocker, grahamc99, jekert gwapo, Adam NFK Smith

Daniela Morell

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6 Responses

  1. Actually, the whole point of Lean is stop wasting human time (and resources) on things that are useless, so that the people can be freed up to do something useful. In Toyota for example, workers spend more time solving production problems and performing preventive maintenance than they would in companies that don’t use Lean. The people are probably as physically active (or inactive) as they would otherwise be, they’re just doing something useful. But, I would argue that workers in a Lean environment are more cognitively engaged – they’re thinking more because they’re actively engaged in problem definition and problem solving on an ongoing basis. I don’t know enough about NEAT, but I wonder where it stands on the notion that thinking hard is a physically demanding activity, requiring an increase in caloric consumption? It’s not aerobic to be sure, but it may be something.

  2. Kathy Clark, Ph.D. says:

    Beautiful expose of a serious issue effecting everyone. It seems almost too much to hope that planners, designers, architects, and health practionners exert enough energy and viable planning to change our lethal work environment. Thank you for connecting all the dots…

  3. Daniela says:

    I’ve heard that thinking does burn calories, but I doubt that it’s enough to make that big of a difference. But I have a feeling that being engaged with your work may go hand in hand with being engaged with other parts of life that would lead to being more active. And I do think that good design, ie beautiful, comfortable, healthy environments, sets the right stage for intellectual alertness.

  4. Jonny says:

    One possibility is to get creative about how physical activity in think work supports lean think work, i.e. the efficient generation of solutions to problems, new ideas, and so on. The example I am thinking of is the importance of density and co-location as a driver of innovation, problem solving, the loose networks that support new ideas, and so on. Social networking is great, but I dont think that substitutes for physical density. In fact, I can imagine how rich digital social networking would increase the value of people being in close physical proximity. (That is as they say an empirical question, but I would not bet against it. There is a doctoral thesis in there for someone, but not for me.) What Im getting at is the definition of Lean. As long as we are talking about Lean in its traditional sense, i.e. effective repeatable process, then sitting and using digital communication is best. So for claims processing and reading legal briefs, people are going to get fat unless they make special efforts to move around. But for real problem solving, it would help to have physical layout that made it easy and enjoyable for people to interact face to face. In this sense Lean can be said to be supported by physical activity.

  5. The kinds of physical layouts I’m aware of that support closer working relationships all involve physically placing people in closer proximity so they can overhear conversations and see what others are doing. This is all great, but the closer people are, the less exertion needed to interact – making them fatter yet! There is research on the use of hallways for chance conversations – hallways between offices and conference rooms result in a “strength of loose ties” phenomenon for people who may not work closely together. A Lean layout of office spaces would probably discourage the use of such hallways since most of the time spent in them is waste. Except the small amount of useful time spent there may be really valuable. This suggests that a very careful definition of waste is needed, but that’s true in any Lean analysis.

  6. Daniela says:

    It depends on how to quantify the value of thinking time, right? There are plenty of examples of overall architectural layout supporting both movement and collaboration. If you have say a hallway that pools out somewhere with a sunny spot and some seating (and maybe some snacks) people will be more likely both to go there and to stop there to chat. Does creating space for thinking and moving jive with lean? Probably not. It’s at the heart of the bigger question.

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