Lean zealots cannot turn off the “lean thinking” portion of their brain while on vacation. Here is a recent example to support my contention. While walking from the Notre Dame Cathedral back to our hotel in the 7th arrondissement located on the left bank of Paris, my wife and I decided to take a break. We selected a park bench on the bank of the Seine River where we could bask in the glorious sunshine and count our good fortunes. We had spent the prior 10 days in Ireland where cool rainy weather had been as much the norm as driving on the left side of the road. Then on a whim, without any existing plans, we decided to fly off to Paris to finish our vacation. It was completely spontaneous which made our five days in Paris even more magical.
While sitting there looking north across the Seine we could see the massive Louvre museum to our right and the 3,300 year-old Egyptian obelisk sitting in the Place de la Concorde, its gold top reflecting the mid-day sun, to our left. Then out of the blue Parisian sky my lean safety antenna was signaled to observe and improve a work process. Almost directly in front of me was a city worker bagging grass clippings. He, like me, was not a young man. His back, which had a gentle slope forward, symbolized a lifetime of work. The pile of grass clippings were piled in a graveled area some distance from the actual lawn that had been cut. He was surrounded by four clear plastic bags which he had already filled and was just starting a fifth. The process he was using certainly contributed to or was responsible for, depending on how long he had performed this job responsibility, his back curvature. He was using a rake but it differed from the rakes I have used. This was a four tined rake that looks as if it started as a pitchfork until someone bent all four tines 90 degrees from the handle. While holding the handle parallel to his body, he slid the tines into the grass pile. Next he stepped, with his left foot, onto the grass clipping now on the rake tines to compact them before continuing. Then, while holding a plastic bag in his left hand and the rake in his right, he raised his right arm, taking his right shoulder out of the neutral position, to align the grass clipping on the rake tines with the opening in the plastic bag. He then attempted to insert the clippings into the bag. Some made it in and others fluttered back to the pile. He was looking directly down, with his back bent, during the entire operation. Had my command of the French language allowed me to do more than order outstanding food and great wine I would have engaged him in a process improvement discussion intended to improve the safety of the work he was performing.
My eyes were now glazed, I had forgotten about the glorious “City of Lights” in front of me, and I was asking myself, since I couldn’t communicate with him, some simple questions. How did the clipping get from the lawn to their current location? Didn’t they know they make mowers with bagging attachments? Or, did they dump the clipping from the mower attachment here so they could re-bag them? I had to admit that this was indeed a possibility, for after all this was a government worker in a country and city better known for worker strikes than worker ingenuity and productivity, so I shifted my thinking from correcting the root cause to just improving his safety.
When we first arrived in Paris I noticed there were few conventional trash cans. Instead they had metal hoops welded to upright posts that were anchored to the ground. The top of a plastic trash bag was slipped over the hoop and a rubber bungee cord type device was used to secure the bag to the hoop. To remove the bag you simply loosened the rubber cord. I was impressed with this creative method of trash collection that eliminated dirty smelly trash cans and the requirement to lift them to empty out the contents. Then I noticed just to the left of our bench one of these trash collection stations. I wanted to immediately move some grass clippings next to it, install his plastic trash bag onto the hoop, straighten the tines on his rake and fill the bag while maintaining a more upright back and head position with my shoulders never getting out of the neutral position. But I didn’t want to create a work stoppage which could lead to a massive city worker strike that would paralyze the city of Paris – after all, we had to fly home the next day and the Metro train crews and air traffic controllers were instrumental in our on-time departure! So instead we continued our stroll along the Seine heading toward our Rue Clair neighborhood and lunch at an open air café. Other problems were waiting to be solved. For instance, should we have a bottle of white or rose wine with lunch?