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My Braces and Lean

Lean and Orthodontia (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In less than a week, I get my braces off. I thought it would be done at that point, but my orthodontist told me that recent studies have shown that teeth will start shifting back to the original position as long as five years after the braces are removed, if you don’t use some sort of retention. I’ve opted for a bonded retainer, but I still have to wear a removable retainer at night for as long as I want my teeth to remain straight.

It came to me that braces sound a lot like Lean. My orthodontia started as a problem that I recognized. My teeth were a little out of alignment. Was it crippling? No. But there was certainly room for improvement. Many people never recognize that there is a chance to make things better. The same is true in Lean. Some companies just don’t identify their opportunities, and so there is never any effort to fix things.

Once I made the decision to fix my teeth, though, I had some more choices to make. I needed to find some expertise to help me. I needed to choose some specifics about the method. I needed to make time in my schedule to get to appointments. Still sounds a lot like Lean, right? Your company has to choose a strategy, find the right mentor, and allocate resources to improvement efforts.

Then the real work began. I had to get the braces on, and deal with the poking, tightening, food caught everywhere, and trouble flossing. With Lean, there are similar levels of challenges. Getting better takes effort and is not without pain.

Eventually, though, my teeth slowly but surely became aligned. Again, the process was similar to a Lean journey. It takes time and is often hard to notice the day-to-day changes. (OK, kaizen is immediately noticeable, but the majority of practicing Lean lies in creating a continuous improvement culture, not in the discrete events.)

But now, my braces are coming off, and there is still work to do. I’ve got to keep maintaining the alignment of my teeth with a retainer. In Lean, you have to sustain 5S, use daily management, and establish visual controls.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. My teeth are about as aligned as they are going to be with reasonable expense in time, money, and pain. In Lean, there is no such end to the journey. While my teeth are done moving, your company will need to keep moving forward to stay competitive.

References: Smiling Face with Braces image is by User ‘Monkeyblue’ from Wikimedia Commons.


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One Comment

  • Mark Welch says:

    Jeff – I never thought of braces in the lean way as you’ve described, but it makes sense. I blew it with my first kaizen with braces when I was younger.

    I had braces as an early teen, threw away my retainer when I was 23 figuring I didn’t need it anymore, then at 40 I had to do braces all over again. There’s a great lesson in this for kids!

    About the bonded retainer – my orthodontist tried that on my bottoms when my braces came off at age 42. The cement kept crumbling so we went with the regular nighttime retainer and it’s worked out fine. I wear a top and bottom retainer several nights a week and will the rest of my life. I plan to make this kaizen work!

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