Content By Jim Benson

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By: Jim Benson

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. In fact, for short periods of time, it is actually valuable to us. The hormones our brains release during stressful moments were designed to protect us by preparing us to react quickly in dangerous situations.

Unfortunately, when these hormones start kicking in, we become exposed to a wide variety of potential health problems, both physical and psychological. Some of the most vivid examples include depression, insomnia, high blood sugar, and even heart attacks.


Millions of people around the world are suffering from chronic stress that puts their health in danger every day. For many of them, the biggest contributors to accumulating stress are their jobs.

We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed by the long list of tasks that await us at the start of the workday or the urgency of a last-minute request from a stakeholder. However, we are far from powerless against it.

Let’s explore several ways to achieve a stress-free workday.

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By: Jim Benson

Value stream mapping is a team exercise, it’s collaborative, enlightening, and the foundation for professionalism.

I’m pretty well-known for saying that teams are unique and that there is no one process that satisfies every team’s needs. There is, however, one activity that I’ve seen every team we’ve worked with, in countless fields—from construction to software engineering to banking, even with groups of patent lawyers at the United States Patent and Trademark Office—and that is a value stream mapping (VSM) exercise.

More than anything else, and perhaps surprisingly, this exercise builds culture and gives teams the means to actually take control of their work. From what I’ve seen, you can’t be a self-organizing team without first seeing and understanding the work you actually do... in all its raw, painful reality.

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.
~ W. Edwards Deming

What is value stream mapping?

The VSM exercise has a long, technical, and perhaps even off-putting name. It was originally conceived of to see the steps in any process, and identify places for improvement. A laudable goal, a worthy goal, even, and I probably lost about 25 percent of the readers by stating it.

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By: Jim Benson

No matter who you are or what you do, you create systems and live in the systems of others every day. But for some reason, we’re never actually taught lean systems thinking. We think it is natural, that we just sort of “get it.”

On a personal level, we are most often governed by cognitive biases... more than 250 documented “shortcuts” our brains take to interpret and respond to the world around us. They, themselves, are systems, and they respond to stimuli in our world (which are generated by, you guessed it, more systems).

It’s a soup, but it’s a soup of patterns.

Systems are our responsibility

The key to lean systems thinking is to be able to see these patterns and their indicators, interactions, and implications. From there, we must be able to share what we see with others so we can recognize the same patterns, react in similar ways, and respond appropriately. Once we have a shared understanding of the system and our responses, we can build better systems by creating intentional systems that support clarity, creativity, and completion.

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By: Jim Benson

We want to grow as professionals. We want our products to be better, our know-how to be deeper, our impact to be known and recognized.

This is impossible without continuous improvement.

I have met many mediocre professionals who are mediocre only for one reason: They feel like they are done learning.

Well, Herbie Hancock practices every day. And he’s Herbie Hancock.

I’m not Herbie Hancock, and neither are you (if you are, give me a call).

For any of us to improve or grow, we need to pay attention to what we are doing. We need this attention to be serious. However, we must remember that we’re human beings. Joy is not simply a “nice to have”; it is part of the work. Inspiration is part of the work. And seeing results is part of the work.

Continuous improvement does not mean what you think it means

The act of continuous improvement isn’t “extra work,” as so many engineers and managers have whined to me over the years. The act of continuous improvement isn’t to shave seconds off a process, as so many lean sensei have preached to me. The act of continuous improvement is not to reduce waste or cut costs, as so many cost-accounting-minded leaders have openly wished in my presence.

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By: Jim Benson

In lean there is mura, the waste of unevenness.

It’s probably the most important, but also most overlooked, in the waste theater.

For knowledge work, unevenness primarily interrupts flow. It’s when you have work that you should do easily but you don’t. There is this mura lying around that makes things harder than they need to be.

And most of this mura we create ourselves. Unnecessary rules, needless decision-making centralization, or simply not getting together and figuring out how we do things. So each professional on the team does predictable things in a slightly different way... making the predictable arbitrary.

Now, here’s the thing. We have three kinds of lean flow:
1. Operational flow (the flow of work)
2. Information flow (the flow of possibilities)
3. Psychological flow (the flow of our own creativity and focus).

If our aim is to create great product with an unhindered team, it is our job to make sure that all three kinds of lean flow happen to the best extent possible. We do this primarily by removing obstacles and increasing opportunities for professionalism.

This causes us to confront the double-edged sword of what lean calls “standard work.”

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By: Jim Benson

Respect is an abused word. Weak minds use it as a placeholder for fear. Weak egos will demand it up front. Weak hearts will use it to attach themselves to people of bluster, wishing they could be so outspoken.

We could do with a few more conversations about respect.

We can see here, sadly, that our focus on respect is at an all-time low (or at least as of the last 220 years). We should do something about this.

Respect for other people, in this lens, is at the heart of lean and agile. But neither explicitly builds respect into its means and methods. Respect for other professionals is required in any healthy system of work. Anything short is abuse or slavery.

When we use respect as a lens, we are constantly asking ourselves, “How is the individual affected by this system?” “How are these professionals able to grow in this system?” “How does the system improve under the influence of these people?”

We are respecting capability—that the professionals in the system can and should be excellent participants in and caretakers of the system we are creating. 

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By: Jim Benson

When we work together, which we all do, everything involves relationships. People request work from other people... that is a relationship. People take jobs that involve bosses and structure... those are relationships. People form teams to get specific types of work done... again, relationships. And it goes on from there.

No one works alone. Everyone works together. No exceptions.

In the initial article, I defined relationships as a lens:

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By: Jim Benson

We focus on the work, we focus on the teams, but we rarely focus on the individuals. What does an individual professional need to be fully engaged, enthusiastic, and ready to take on new challenges?

Think of five of those needs.

At the core of any needs you wrote down is bound to be information. Communication is how information is transferred. Whether it is clarity of mission, definitions of current work, feedback from previous work, availability of other team members, disposition of colleagues, satisfaction of customers... it’s all information, and that needs to be communicated.

We inform each other, we process together, we achieve.

Both agile and lean come packed with good options for how and when to communicate. There are huddles, kaizen events, retrospectives, work-grooming sessions, A3s, and so on. Lots of tools, predefined, sanctioned, and equally prone to success and failure.

In the initial article, I defined the first lens, communication, as:

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By: Jim Benson

The strength of lean thinking and an agile mindset is that, at heart, they are both about continuous improvement. People want to, need to, improve. We need to get better at what we do, see increasing impact, and know we are making a difference.

If this is a core human need, why do most agile and lean transformations “fail?”

Although it’s tempting to blame managers or staff or coaches for the “failures” of companies and teams to do their A3s; their retrospectives; their story points; their define, measure, analyze, improve, control (DMAIC); or whatever, at some point we have to come to terms with the fact that these are human beings working and not simply work passing through human beings.

We strive for flow but will never fully achieve it.

Continuous improvement has always, and will always, “fail” because reality doesn’t respect it. People become overloaded, distracted, or even inspired. And these things change the course of work.

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By: Jim Benson

Last night I sat down to watch something that would help me barbecue meat better: a two hour-long movie called Barbecue. Simply that, by Australians. I figured it would be about making succulent shrimp or game meats. Something... Australian.

The work showcased people who cook with flame from around the world. Different countries, native tongue, and subtitles, even in places with folk who regularly speak English. Maori, South African, Zulu, and Afrikaans punctuating the rift between understanding, with the words spoken yearning for it.

But the most poignant part for me was a guy in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert. A Syrian guy who was just about to open his own restaurant when bombs fell, people were killed, and they were forced to flee their homes. They were forced to move from trees and water and beautiful views to the middle of sand and dust. From homes with amenities to tents.

Now, in the refugee camp, they were surrounded by fences, they are not allowed to leave. Victimized again, imprisoned by the organizations sent to help them.