lagom not too little, not too much, just right

Lagompronounced law-gum, is a Swedish word that has no direct translation, but essentially means “not too much, not too little… just right.” We chose this word for the name of our business, Lagom Solutions, not just because of our Swedish heritage, but because the term is so relevant to the needs of organizations in this culture of “more.”

According to my research, the word lagom dates back to the Viking era and is a shortened version of the phrase “laget om” or “around the team.”1 The phrase is usually mentioned in connection with groups of Vikings sitting around the fire drinking mead from a communal vessel. There’s a balance to drinking from the communal cup (or horn, as it were). You want enough to feel satisfied, but you don’t want to be the one that takes too much, not leaving enough for everyone else to have a sip. It takes an awareness of, not only your own needs, but those of the rest of the group so that you know just the right amount to take.

These days, we aren’t really drinking out of communal cups (no one wants the flu)! Also, our decisions are a bit more complex than how much mead we drink and the impact of those decisions isn’t as immediately visible either.  Despite that, we can feel the impact when there’s “too much” in our systems. It manifests as dependencies that have other priorities, constant overtime, or a growing backlog of root causes to problems that need to be fixed. These problems are so endemic that I find myself surprised that more organizations don’t go out of business. Fortunately, in many cases, simplifying things… getting to lagom, may just be the ticket to getting us back to balance. Embracing lagom at work is removing distractions to elevate a focus on the important.

In this first post on the subject of embracing lagom at work, I want to highlight a just a few key areas that are often overburdened and provide relevant questions that help you see if you are likely encumbered by the distraction of too much or if you you have a lagom, and thus manageable, amount of each.

Work-In-Process

One of the most critical areas that desperately needs us to embrace the concept of lagom is how much WiP, or work-in-process, we take on at once. Our organizations are overloaded with too much going on at one time, a flaw that is extremely irresponsible. Taking on too much WiP causes organizations to spend more money than necessary, lose the faith of customers when commitments aren’t met, and cause good employees to leave and find jobs elsewhere where there’s more balance. There are many reasons why organizations accumulate too much WiP, but one of the biggest is failure of leadership to understand cost of delay, set priorities and create conditions that allow those priorities to be treated as such. Individual teams can implement limits to how much they start at one time, but if the flood gates are open higher up in the organization, then they are just plugging the dam with a finger — not very effective or sustainable. If you answer YES to some of these questions, you might have too much WiP:

  • Do you have multiple priority 1 items?
  • Do you start new work items more often than you finish work items?
  • Do work items spend most of their lifetime waiting for someone or something?
  • When work gets blocked, do you start a new piece of work as a first course of action?
  • Does your team/dept./org. use gantt charts to try to fit in as many projects as possible at one time based on capacity planning for skill sets?

Policies

Policies are things we love to add but rarely ever remove. When something goes wrong, we have a tendency to create a new policy to govern the thing more strictly instead of finding the real root cause of the problem and fix it. When we create policies, we have to make sure people know about them and understand them. Unfortunately, educating people on policies isn’t a one-time affair – it has to be done over and over as time goes by and new people come onboard. That takes time! Not to mention that policies should be enforced. Why have policies if they aren’t enforced? Either get rid of them or call them suggestions. Either way, if you’re going to have them they need to be worth the time and overhead it takes to maintain them. With that in mind, can you answer YES to the following questions? If so, you probably have a lagom amount of policies!

  • Can all of your policies be easily remembered?
  • Are all of your policies enforced?
  • Do you ensure that your policies acting as a temporary band-aid to cover up the real problem?
  • Do you ensure that these band-aid policies are actually temporary?
  • Do you make sure that policies make sense for those on the front lines and don’t prohibit the service of the customer? (ie. Are you United or Southwest?)

Metrics

This is one area where we become reality show level hoarders. We think that all data is worth having so we gobble it up, forgetting that having data consumes resources and requires maintenance. Even more important is the fact that metrics can drive behaviors. Eli Goldratt said “tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave. If you measure me in illogical ways, don’t complain about my illogical behavior.” There’s a lot of wisdom in those words and that should be very scary to people who have an unbounded inventory of metrics. Can you be sure that people aren’t optimizing for metrics that aren’t important? Have you considered the impacts if they are?

Take a moment and review the following questions. If you can you answer YES to each then you’re likely on the right track. If you can’t, you have some work ahead of you to curate a lagom metrics inventory and help you avoid unintentional injury by metrics.

  • Have you written down everything you’re measuring?
  • For each metric, have you written down the answer for either a) why a customer cares about this metric or b) which decision it helps you make?
  • Do each of your metrics answer a question that tells you whether your goals are being successfully realized?
  • Have you checked each metric to see if the associated goal, and therefore the metric, is beyond its best by date?

In Summary

WiP, policies and metrics are but a few areas in which lagom is a relevant and extremely important concept. We talk often about delivering things of high business value but our actions that lead us towards accumulation of “more” show just how little regard we have for those things we speak highly of. Actions speak louder than words. If we truly want to treat things as if they are valuable, we make space for them. We give them the focus they need to become things of quality and pride by ruthlessly removing unnecessary distractions. This takes strength and we get strength by continuing practice. We have the fortitude to continue to practice by supporting each other.

Share your stories of how you’re troubled by overburdening or how you’ve achieved lagom levels of important things in your organization via the comments below or continue the discussion with me on twitter at @everydaykanban.

 


Footnotes

  1.  References to the viking connection to the word lagom:

Other References