Many of us continue our career march five days a week, culminating in weekend filled with other obligations. We try to juggle hectic work agendas with a busy family life. On top of that, most people have an ecological footprint amounting to four or five planet Earths (i.e., we would need at least four planet Earths if everyone lived the same way).1
None of that is sustainable – not for us as individuals, not for our relationships, and not for our climate.
Scientists have shown that we are the last generation that can stop climate change.2 Meanwhile, research shows that many people live in marriages in which one individual is overburdened and takes on most of the practical, logistical and emotional responsibilities in the household.3
We’re overworked. We’re tired. Our planet is falling apart, and one partner is doing more than the other.
One way to make some changes without needing a huge paradigm shift is to start with two simple yet challenging Lean principles:
- Continuous improvements
- Respect for people
Start with small, sustainable steps in the organization you can impact most – your home.
For my family it all began out of pure survival instinct. To overcome the challenges of a life filled with stress, waste and frustration, we started implementing Lean into our home, an old wooden house with a small apple orchard outside Stockholm. It was unintentional at first, but as we saw the pattern emerge like interwoven threads forming figures in a tapestry, we began to systematically work with Lean tools.
My husband and I both used Lean in our careers (I was vice president of a global telecom company; my husband is a doctor), but Lean is user-friendly enough that our son and two daughters helped with the changes. After only one year, we saw astronomical results. We cut our expenses in half, we went from almost no control to full control and we have flow in our daily lives. We started to achieve our family’s dreams, and after less than a year, our environmental footprint was one-third of what it used to be, the laundry was completed 10 times faster (see Figures 1 and 2 for the before and after processes), and we saved thousands of dollars overall.
We went from a feeling of frustration to flow (Figure 3). My husband went from a beer belly to a triathlete and I decided to live my dream of writing books. We shifted from a life permeated by waste into one filled with value.
By creating the right conditions and expectations you get smooth streams and can move in the flow quadrant. Figure 3 shows the classic model for flow by Mihàly Csíkzentmihályi. Many who start with Lean in the home have moved from feelings of frustration to the sense of flow over time.
Opportunity in Disguise
When I talk about Lean management versus conventional management, I sometimes simplify and say that Lean management is intended to highlight problems, which are actually seen as something positive – as an opportunity in disguise (how I love that definition!). Conventional management seeks to ignore problems, to hide them under the rug – problems are bad, people get blamed.
Could we say the same thing about conventional marriages? Are we only seeing problems as bad? Do we blame our partner?
If the answer is yes, then try to Lean in, even in your marriage. Try to see problems as opportunities in disguise; try to ask why to get to the root of problems, instead of playing the classic blame game with a focus on the symptoms.
Tackle Emotional Labor
A major challenge for families is family logistics and emotional labor – “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” – that comes with running a home.4 Both tend to fall on one person’s shoulders (if speaking about conventional families, this is usually the woman’s shoulders) and often highly involuntarily. Emotional labor is a Sisyphean task, because it is done seamlessly, invisibly. But here’s the thing: it needs to be addressed, because if someone deeply feels they are being taken advantage of, it is a direct threat to the atmosphere of the home.
Really think about who does what and why – and how to do things smarter as well as in a more fun and creative way. Imagine this: you have a team at work of four or five colleagues, and only one of them – always the same one – takes care of everything. That organization is doomed. This is often the case in the family: You have one person who often involuntarily falls into that role.
Be Respectful of People
Creating even workloads and putting everyone’s creativity to use are key elements of Lean culture. People should not be overburdened (muri) nor have vastly uneven streams (mura). Whether consciously or unconsciously, a number of organizations have grossly misinterpreted or manipulated Lean, giving it a bad reputation in some circles. These organizations seem to think Lean is about an insane amount of streamlining, overburdening employees and reducing staff. It should be the opposite: it’s impossible to have a Lean culture if your staff is overburdened, and that is not respectful of people.
The same goes in your micro-organization: your home. It is often the interplay between parents that indicates the atmosphere in the home. Obviously, the practical and emotional sides of being a good parent must be discussed and shared. Shirking responsibility is inconsistent with a desire to be a lifelong good parent. It is awful to feel that you’ve been taken advantage of, and that feeling is a direct threat to the atmosphere of the home.
Invisible Tasks Exercise
Try the following exercise as a lens through which to view your parenting, and a way to estimate the distribution of responsibility. This exercise is about perception, appreciation and acknowledgment.
Each adult (you can include your children, too) should have their own sheet of white paper in front of you. Draw two or three columns, with one column for each adult. If you have children, label one column for the kids. The first column is yours: Write the percentage of chores you believe you do, what they are and how long they take. The second column is your perception of your partner: Write what you believe they do. In the third column, do the same for the children. Your partner should do the same. If your kids are old enough, have them participate and draw columns indicating how much of the total housework they believe they do. (See Figures 4 and 5 for a typical family’s results.)
If both parents work full-time then, ideally, the columns will be the same size. When you complete this exercise, it is important to truly consider everything you do at home, including social, emotional, practical and financial work.
Write down everything, and I mean everything – big and small. Don’t forget anything – that is key. Everything counts, from charging the lawnmower battery to buying new gym shoes for the kids, from wiping crumbs off the dining-room table to driving the kids to their activities.
The next step, which may be amusing or worrisome, is to compare your estimate to your partner’s. There are so many things that one partner does of which the other may be completely unaware and vice versa. They are invisible. Things only become apparent when they are not done. It is incredibly easy to do.
Although the redistribution of tasks may take some time and negotiation, a balance can be achieved with transparency, honestly and clarity.
When we started practicing Lean at home, we genuinely believed (rather naively) that we were already environmentally friendly. But when we calculated our carbon footprint, we were shocked. It was an eye opener for us. If everyone lived like we did, we would need eight Earths! Today we are down to between two to three – but we still haven’t gone far enough.
There are several ways to calculate your own carbon footprint. One online tool that I find to be straightforward and intuitive is the Global Footprint Network’s footprint calculator.5 It’s easy; you simply answer questions about your home, travel, eating and shopping habits. Then the calculator reveals your environmental impact and suggests ways to reduce it. You can choose to answer at two levels, either an average, or by adding details to improve accuracy.
It will take you about 10–15 minutes and you will be much more aware of where your waste lies. What we realized when we started to reflect on this was how we neglect our most important needs (breathing clean air, drinking clean water, etc.) to meet compensatory needs created by effective marketing messages. Because what this is actually about is how to move from waste to value.
Continuous improvements and respect for people are fundamental for implementing sustainable change. You may more typically apply Lean tools to your workplace, but you might be surprised by how easily its principles can be applied to your home, too.
- World Economic Forum, “Chart of the day: These countries have the largest carbon footprints,” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/chart-of-the-day-these-countries-have-the-largest-carbon-footprints/. Accessed November 29, 2019.
- United Nations, “Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting,” https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm. Accessed November 29, 2019.
- Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation, “Employment: Time spent in in paid and unpaid word, by sex,” https://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=54757. Accessed November 29, 2019.
- Grandey, Alicia A. “Emotion Regulation in the Workplace,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 1, 95-110. http://php.scripts.psu.edu/users/a/a/aag6/GrandeyJOHP.pdf. Accessed November 29, 2019.
- Global Footprint Network, “What Is Your Ecological Footprint?” https://www.footprintcalculator.org/. Accessed November 29, 2019.