What The Gym Can Teach Us About Lean

Posted on June 30, 2013 | in 5S, Error-Proofing, Kanban, Respect For People, Safety, Sports, Visual Management | by

Lean muscle. Lean meat. Lean production. Surely they have a lot in common, yes?

I get asked all the time what it means to be Lean. It astounds me that Lean has achieved such a reputation that people think that it’s either slashing employee headcount so low that capabilities are severely hindered simply to become more profitable (in the very short term, as this is a race to the bottom), or that it’s a threat to those who are loathe to change and want to stick by the way it’s always been done (well, actually, becoming Lean involves change so they’re right).

But isn’t one of the simplest examples of Lean found at the gym?

How would you define a lean person physically versus one that isn’t so lean? I would say “everything they need, very little they don’t.”

A lean physical specimen is someone who has a high ratio of muscle to fat, and they continue to work to build the muscle they need to perform as they need to (a runner doesn’t want to bulk up and carry extra muscle mass if their goal is to run fast with minimal extra weight) and reduce the amount of unnecessary weight (generally coming in the form of fat).

Lean muscle tone means the muscle contains as much strong muscle fiber as is necessary but has reduced the quantity of fat stores within those fibers.

Lean doesn’t mean “skinny” either – Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the leanest athletes of the 20th century but he is by no means skinny.

michael jordan


Michael Jordan allegedly had 3% body fat during his optimal playing condition, lower than the 6% average of all NBA players and far lower than the 18% of the average human. He was very lean as well, but in the ways that helped him best on the basketball court.

Lean production should be the same way – everything you need, very little you don’t. Waste reduction activities helps to eliminate what you don’t need from your processes. Customer expectations definitions and process analyses help you establish what you need. That’s essentially what it means to be Lean.

We see lean enthusiasts at the gym all the time – what else can the gym teach us about Lean?

A lack of balance in productivity can look really funny when not working in unison.

funny gym muscles all chest arms no legs

Find some balance, bro.

At the gym I attend there are plenty of these guys walking around – ginormous arms but legs and lower bodies not receiving nearly enough attention. A lack of balance overall is probably more noticeable and eyebrow-raising than any good attention one might receive from having huge biceps.

Just like a body should look and operate in unison and with balance, processes should operate like this as well. A three station manufacturing process where the first station completes its steps in less time than the second station and pushes its assembled pieces to the second station will start to see a huge buildup of inventory. Implementing a pull system – the second station only takes from the first station when it’s ready instead of the first station simply shoving production toward the second station – with the imbalance still means the first station is starting and stopping frequently.

Proper balancing of activities for cycle time (and not just for people in those activities) will likely reduce inefficiencies…and make your processes look less awkward.

Even the gym tries to utilize elements of 5S.

golds gym weight rack dumbells

I concede I’m stealing this idea from Matt Wrye of the Beyond Lean blog, as he just wrote a piece about 5S at the gym, but the examples he provides are spot on.

(The gym) is a prime example of (how) having good 5S does not change behavior.  It just creates the ability to see an abnormal condition quickly.

The dumbbell rack uses labels and slots to define what dumbbells go in what spaces. The labels are a form of set-in-order, while the slots are somewhat error-proofed so that the dumbbells won’t easily roll away down the rack.

golds gym workout spaceThe gym also has areas taped off for certain free weights exercises…but they really only work if you know what the spaces are intended for.

After you’re done using equipment, you’re supposed to spray down the equipment where you’ve touched it with some antibacterial cleaner to prevent sharing of germs and other grossness through transference of sweat. My gym has little cleaner stations located throughout the workout spaces so one is never really far from hand.

Now just because the gym uses elements of 5S, that doesn’t mean the gym has fully implemented 5S. Much like Matt says, using some of the 5S tools doesn’t mean behaviors will change. It does flag abnormal conditions but users should be trained to know how to fix those abnormal conditions so the conditions are right for the next person to use the equipment.

If the process can’t be error-proofed, then you might have to use a checklist. If you can’t use a checklist, should you create policy?

I am not a fan of forced policies, especially ones that are inconsistently enforced and regulated, ones that don’t make much sense, and ones that are identified and announced after the fact. I’m a bit of a rebellious soul in that I like to challenge rules I think are stupid but I am a stickler for rules that are properly applied and are of genuine value and meaning.

There is a gym-attire-only policy at my gym – no jeans and no flip-flops to be worn in the workout area. Not abiding by the rule takes away from the focus that the gym is supposed to be, and wearing flip-flops is a genuine safety hazard. Unfortunately, the sales guys previously identified only care about sales and not about the follow-through and enforcement of the gym’s ambiance.

The gym thinks posting “policy” signs near the entrance of the locker rooms is enforcement enough.

Oh but when it comes to the fine print of contracts they are all over it. New policies spring up all the time, contract statements can change without notice, and anything that might take away from their cash flow is an emergency that must be rectified. (This will likely be a post for another day.)

Simply creating policy does not create a culture. If you have a policy, what can you do to take it up a step to attempt to error-proof? You don’t want the company fallback to be “well, that’s our policy” do you? What can you do to make sure a cultural element is self-enforced or deemed important by the users instead of creating a rule that may or may not be followed?

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