The interviewer asked me: “What is your proudest project accomplishment?” I’m sure she wanted to hear about traditional success measures like millions of dollars saved, cycle time decreased or customer satisfaction increased. I blurted out – my preschool! While it most likely cost me the interview, that moment reminded me of other important problems we solve.
Like many of you, I have been solving problems – big problems – in corporate America for a long time. We draw from our toolkits in Hoshin Kanri, Six Sigma, Lean, change management, innovation and more. It’s fun and rewarding. But if we’re talking about pride, then that’s something more.
It was 2003 in Phoenix, Arizona. I was boarding a plane for a business trip and I was visibly eight months pregnant. I insisted to myself and to anyone who tried to convince me otherwise that I could manage my career, my growing family, my pregnancy, my MBA program and my Six Sigma certifications – all at once.
In hindsight, I’m surprised someone didn’t shoot me with a tranquilizer to stop the madness.
More crazy energy ensued for months until one day I found myself sitting outside of the daycare lady’s house demanding to my Senior Vice President/Master Black Belt boss: “I don’t want to be in the fast lane anymore. I just want to go in the slow lane. I’m begging you; let me scoot over to the slow lane, please.” He tried to encourage me about the trajectory of my career, but there was no reasoning with me at that point. I had hit the work/life balance wall.
I was annoyed that I wasn’t in control anymore. On the way home with my two babies in tow, I remembered a Black Belt peer of mine had recently said to me, “Girl, trying to get yourself, your laptop bag, your purse, and a couple of little ones in and out of the car is enough to break you.” Wait a minute! That sounded like critical to quality (CTQ). This whole mess could be boiled down to a multi-dimensional problem statement.
What did I want? I wanted my sanity. I wanted happiness for my little family. I wanted my career. I wanted my kids to have a great environment, to have friends for developing social skills, to have a school for growing their minds and to be in the safety of our home. I wanted to be a good mom. Wait a minute! That sounded like an emotional job to be done.
What ways had these problems been solved already? Other moms make the same tough choices – stay home, work part-time, get a nanny or enroll in a daycare facility. Those were fine options, but they didn’t solve my problem statement components.
This stress was weighing on me, because I sensed that other moms of my generation were not completely satisfied with their options either. Wait a minute! That sounded like an unmet need and free available resources. There were women (and men) all around my community who had dropped out of the workforce to stay home with their children.
That was when I realized I could do it – I could have quality time with my family, I could work my corporate career and I could… Make a preschool on the side? Why not? The suburbs of Phoenix were full of parents temporarily opting out of their careers by choice. I contemplated the risks failure-mode-and-effects-analysis style, I visited with an attorney and I sought advice from an accountant. Then I dedicated 1,000 square feet of my home to the kids. I distributed a few flyers around the community and voilà, I launched a parents’ cooperative.
We had a preschool!
It was not just any preschool. Ours was the “Leanest” preschool you have ever seen. We had a curriculum including all kinds of classes – music, dance, physical education, Spanish, mathematics, science and more. We had a toy bin system for 5S. We had hourly routines for flow. We leveraged a red/yellow/green reward board for measurements. We shared daily report cards for standard work. We planned menus and shopping lists for needed materials. You name it, we “Leaned” it.
Pretty soon we had a roster of 100 preschoolers through word-of-mouth references alone. We had a rotating schedule of classes with little ones giggling, learning, and thriving thanks to a collection of families who joined forces to create that tiny world together. We made friends, the kids made friends and the community united in running this school for nearly four years.
What is my proudest project? That’s easy – my preschool!
What is your proudest project accomplishment?