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Lean Escape Velocity

A gerontologist (one who studies aging and the problems of aging people) named Aubrey de Grey has a theory about longevity that basically says in the future, medical and other technological advances will increase average life spans faster than people are aging. He calls the point when that happens ‘longevity escape velocity’. As you age, the actuarial tables, in effect, extend out of your reach.

I find that theory hard to believe, at least in the next few decades, as it seems that there is a point of diminishing returns. Adding a year to the average lifespan when it reaches 95 or 105 years is going to be considerably harder than it will be to turn an 80 year average into 81. In 1900, the average life expectancy (at birth) in the US was a shade under 50 years. In 2003, it was nearly 78, so in 103 years, the lifespan increased 28 years.

Sounds good, except in the last 6, it only increased one year, so the pace is slowing down.

But the logic behind the theory is sound, if optimistic. Technology is racing forward, and despite the challenges of facing an increasingly difficult task, science is still adding a year to life expectancy every six. So maybe the theory is not as far-fetched as it seems on the surface. I actually heard a quote not too long ago that the first person who will live to be 150 years old has likely already been born.

So, let’s now set aside the discussion on aging, and apply the logic to Lean. I think there is probably a Lean version of escape velocity in which the gains made in each year provide enough resources and knowledge and improved systems to make continuously accelerating gains in subsequent years. That, of course, assumes that poor leadership doesn’t derail the momentum.

The biggest risks I see is when managers harvest the gains, fail to insist that new processes are documented, allow systems to erode, and most problematic: fail to develop their teams.

So, what do you think? Have you experienced that Lean escape velocity where current gains provide the lift to keep future gains coming? Or do you have any warnings on what can cause that trajectory to flatten out? We’d love to hear your thoughts.


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