The Lean Office Blog

Longshore Drift and Lean Management

Today’s post highlights several lessons learned when swimming in the ocean or implementing a Lean Management System.

Last month, my family took a much-needed trip to the beach. We’ve got two boys, and each afternoon while my younger son took a nap with my wife on the beach, my older son (5 years old) and I would venture out into the water for some quality one-on-one time. The waves were pretty active during our visit, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get knocked down a few times on our way out to deeper water where the waves weren’t breaking. My son is still learning to swim, and these waves represented a pretty big challenge for him. My wife had taught him how to brace for the impact of a wave by turning sideways and bending his knees, but he still had to work to avoid getting “spit back out” onto the shore. Our favorite spot was just beyond the place where waves start breaking. Here, the water gently raises and lowers with each wave, and my son could practice swimming or floating on his back without fear of getting swamped by a crashing wave.

It was our first day out in this calmer water that he made a startling discovery. It appeared to him that I was swimming away from him with each wave that passed. “Dad, come back! Stop swimming away from me!” he shouted with a good dose of concern. I had to explain to him that even though we were out past the crashing waves, there were other forces at work in the water. In this case, each wave was carrying us a bit down the beach. Of course, my feet were touching the sand (and I’m a bit less buoyant), so the lean management driftimpact was much less on me. That night, we did a little investigating and came across the concept of something called longshore drift.

The rest of the week, we would marvel at how far this phenomenon pushed us down the beach from where our chairs were set up. On the (very long) drive back home, I did some thinking on the fact that many times in our lives as Lean managers, we experience a similar phenomenon. Below I’ve listed a few lessons we learned from drifting, and how they can apply in your work.

1. The strategies that got you this far won’t worklean management breaking wave

My son had learned some valuable tips for getting through the breaking waves he would face on the way out to calmer water. However, once he got to the deeper water, they did him no good in avoiding the drift. In the same way, Lean managers have to use a different approach to maintain improved processes than they used to improve those processes.

2. Don’t just focus on breaking waves

My son’s reaction upon reaching calmer waters mirrors the case for many Lean managers. They think once they’ve graduated past the “breaking waves” of change management and improvement projects, their work is done. In fact, the work is only beginning. Process improvements will always fall victim to something called entropy, and Lean managers have to be constantly aware of this phenomenon. It isn’t always apparent, which is why you’ll need to. . .lean management umbrella

3. Find a reference point on shore

In order to see how far we had drifted down shore, my son and I would look to the umbrella on shore where my wife and younger son sat in the shade. If your processes are prone to drift (hint-they all are), create a visible standard for the way a process should be done, and how it is performing.  Like a beach umbrella, you can always adjust the standard over time as you improve, but don’t ever lose sight of that standard.

4. Overcoming drift is hard to do occasionally

At the beginning of the week, my son and I would stay in the water for an hour and marvel at how far we had moved down shore. It sometimes took 20 minutes of hard swimming just to get back to our umbrella “standard”. By the end of the week, we had learned another valuable lesson. If we reset our position every few waves, it took just a few seconds each time. In the same way, as a Lean manager, if you check in on a process occasionally, you will see significant changes that take a lot of effort to resolve. If, on the other hand, you check in on a regular basis, the small changes you observe will be easy to address.

5. Fighting drift is best done as a team

My son and I became quite the team when it came to dealing with longshore drift. We took turns floating on our backs and diving underwater to look at fish while the other person kept an eye on the umbrella. When it was time to reset our position, we worked together to get back to even. In the same way, managing processes takes a team effort involving everyone from the operators and front-line managers to senior management.


The lessons my son and I learned while out in the water on vacation also apply to companies attempting a Lean transformation. Many companies have overcome “longshore drift” in their processes by implementing a Lean Management System using tools like Leader Standard Work, Visual Controls, and Daily Accountability. The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help Lean organizations who have moved beyond tools and events, and are implementing their own Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!

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