I’m a textbook overachiever. The relentlessness with which I divide and conquer has been called both prolific and prodigious, and for much of my career, that has suited me well.

In my personal life, not so much.

By training and career choice, I went from being a nurse that provided direct patient care, to a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and quality improvement subject matter expert. Both careers can be immensely rewarding; only one expects you to juggle so many balls without dropping them that you can feel drained. The other preaches efficient flow.

As a Lean Six Sigma practitioner, much of my work involves looking for waste to eliminate and variation to reduce to maximize both my personal performance and the organizations.

I nailed it in my career. My personal life, still not so much.

Becoming a mom last year changed my life. Having a baby meant juggling another ball. My husband understood that I was a person that couldn’t stay still and seemed to thrive with a lot on my plate. But with my son in my life, I realized that having a baby wasn’t just another ball. It was like adding three more pancakes to an already crammed plate and expecting to still perform at the same level I was used to performing, even though the system was now overloaded.

By the time I was ready to return to work, I knew that I couldn’t power through life as I always had. I wasn’t sure how to decide what to change because, to be honest, I didn’t want to give up anything. Control-freak much?

In short order, I was doing Lean, but I hadn’t accepted being Lean. Big difference.  

The result was that I had become one of those people who thought certain levels of anxiety and stress were normal. Despite data to the contrary and potential risks to my health.

In Lean, the focus is on maximizing flow by eliminating waste. Waste is defined as anything that doesn’t add value as defined by the customer. Keeping that in mind, I decided to complete a Lean project on myself. The end goal was to improve my ability to function as a mom, career-oriented woman, wife, and all-around member of my community. Becoming a mom made me realize that I had to have priorities. It also made me realize that in some areas of my life, I needed to slow down. I chose to use Lean to accomplish that.

I began by examining everything in my life and putting them into one of the three Lean categories of waste: Muri (Overburden), Muda (Unevenness), or Mura (Excessive Consumption of Resources). I made a list that was something like this:

  • Taking on too much of the housework- Muri
  • An overabundance of errands on the weekend- Muda
  • Spending too much time in the office- Mura

From there I was able to find solutions that enabled me to eliminate waste (some of it was a necessary waste, but I was able to shift it better). For example, my husband is more than happy to share baby duty with me. But I’d neglected to take advantage of that. I started inviting him to share in our child-rearing and household chores and, suddenly, I had more time to do things like go to the gym and take care of my mental and physical well-being.

I also found that I’m still able to have my overachieving work ethic, but now I have more balance. I’m at work at 8 a.m., and out by 5 p.m. every day. I stepped down from a job that didn’t fulfill me personally, and was able to find something that is both fulfilling and flexible. That doesn’t mean I don’t still put in long hours — my boss can attest to getting emails at 9 p.m. — but, now I’m free to make sure I’m home for dinner and bedtime with my son. When he’s asleep, I finish up what I need to do and still have time to spend with my husband.

You don’t have to be a Lean Six Sigma Practitioner or even a Lean Coach to apply these concepts. Anyone can do it. One of the first things students in my Lean Six Sigma classes do is document the process for getting out the door in the morning or making their coffee. They then evaluate it to see if it’s the best way of doing things, or if it’s just because of habit. Most are often surprised by how many extraneous steps they take. The exercise teaches them the value of adapting these techniques to their everyday life.

Once I realized that Lean was not just something for business and started applying Lean principles to my life, the quality of life for my family improved. And honestly, I have never been happier.