Helsinki’s magic trick to improve home care for the elderly

Helsingin Sanomat, one of the main newspapers in Finland, published an article on a “magic trick” performed in the public home care for the elderly in the city of Helsinki. This magic trick reduced the workload of personnel while improving the well-being of their customers. (Here is a link to the article itself, it is in Finnish)

Obviously, there is no actual magic at work – just work. However, it looks like an interesting case of process improvement in services, so let’s take a look at what Helsingin Sanomat reported on the new system and what kind of general framework this work is linked to.

The new system in home care for the elderly in Vuosaari area in Helsinki

The key to unlock improvements was recognizing the bottlenecks. In home care for the elderly, these are from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the morning and from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the evening: the times when people need help in getting out of bed, taking their medicine, and going to bed.

In order to protect the bottleneck, all non-essential tasks were moved away from these hours: weekly visits, showering, walks outside, and grocery shopping were moved to separate visits at the customers in the afternoon.

Changes to working hours were crucial in accomplishing the improvements. Previously, employees worked in two eight-hour shifts, and weekend work could result in seven consecutive work days and individual days off. In the new system, a work shift lasts nine hours, but there are never more than four consecutive work days and there are always two consecutive days off. Overall, employees have eight days off work in each three-week segment. With the new work shifts, more people are at work in the afternoon thanks to overlap of morning and evening shifts, which enables longer afternoon visits and improved service.

Furthermore, buffers were built in to the new system, as four employees were set aside to a reserve pool to cover any absences. Previously, such absences were covered by temporary workforce, but now they are handled by full-time personnel.

Cost-wise, the goal is to reduce costs while improving service and well-being at work. Currently, the number of sick leave days and outsourcing purchases have been reduced, but there have also been some additional costs related to evening and weekend work.

Bottlenecks, buffers – now where have I heard these words before?

The language of bottlenecks and buffers does not come from the original article, but is rather my interpretation of the text. Still, those are terms that the description of the events is easily translated into.

The framework I have in mind here is Theory of Constraints (TOC). While TOC is more well-known in manufacturing, the same general ideas can be modified to apply in services as well.

The general TOC improvement cycle, Five Focusing Steps, consists of the following phases:

  1. Identify. What is the current constraint, the bottleneck that limits the entire process. In this case, the morning and evening visits were the hard limiting factors.
  2. Exploit. Increase the output of the bottleneck. In this case, all non-essential work was removed from the morning and evening visits.
  3. Subordinate. By definition, anything that is not the bottleneck has excess capacity. Use that capacity to help the bottleneck. In this case, tasks that were not essential to do in the morning or evening were moved to the afternoon, and work shifts were modified accordingly to support this.
  4. Elevate. When the situation cannot be improved upon by using existing resources differently, it is time to invest. This is a step that needs to be approached cautiously, and in this case, there are no signs of any elevate actions yet – and that is good!
  5. Repeat.

Upon closer examination, the magic trick turns out to be an application of Theory of Constraints!

How deep is the rabbit hole?

Alas, one could also take a different look at the case. This other lens I have in mind is Single-Minute Exchange of Die (SMED).

SMED is one of the Lean tools invented at Toyota, where it is used to reduce changeover times of machinery. When you need to start producing a different part on a machine, there is a lot of work involved. So much in fact, that it used to be accepted that the changeover process would take several hours, during which the machine could not be operated. With the SMED technique, Toyota has reduced changeover times from hours to minutes.

The SMED process is roughly as follows:

  1. Identify which operations are internal to the task and which ones are external. Internal operations are those that have to be performed during the task, while external ones could be performed at another time.
  2. Separate internal operations from external operations so that the external operations can be moved to take place at another time.
  3. Convert remaining internal operations to external operations whenever possible.
  4. Simplify all internal and external operations.
  5. Repeat.

What was done in Helsinki could also be described as an application of SMED. The bottlenecks in mornings and evenings were limiting the overall process, and therefore they identified which operations were internal to those visits and which ones were external and could be moved to a less busy time.

Multiple frameworks, multiple lenses

I am sure what was done in Helsinki could be described in terms of many improvement methodologies. In the end, the methodology used does not matter, the improved service and well-being matter. Various methodologies merely provide us with lenses through which we can examine the world and find ways to do things better.


Photo: Magic trick by Gareth Saunders @ Flickr (CC)


Would you rather lead a role-oriented or a mission-oriented team?


Division of labor is perhaps the greatest invention of mankind. Not everyone has to be a part-time farmer in order to eat, and that’s awesome. However, increasing specialization is not only a good thing, and we have in many ways reached and even surpassed the limits where it is good for us.

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Minimum viable product and snow removal

It is winter time in the Nordic countries, and with winter comes snow. While doing some routine snow removal the other day, my mind wandered to the Lean Startup concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Snow removal can illustrate the concept quite nicely, so I took this picture of my driveway.

Minimum viable product and snow removal

What is a minimum viable product? It is a complete product in the sense that it actually does something.

The cleared area marked in red is not a minimum viable product. Sure, snow has been cleared across the entire width of the driveway, but you can’t actually use it for anything.

The cleared area marked in blue, on the other hand, is a minimum viable product. You have pedestrian access to the mailbox and out of the yard without walking through snow. You can actually accomplish a task! Yeah, it needs to be made wider for cars, but that’s part of future development, adding more features to the product. As a minimum viable product, the product is already accomplishing something.

The difference between doing Lean or Lean Startup and being Lean

The difference between doing Lean or Lean Startup and being LeanBy now, Lean has a fairly long history. With its roots at Toyota in the 1950s, it had its first run at fame in the West in the 1990s, and more recently the Lean Startup movement has adopted the term to describe their customer-centric product development methods based on Lean principles.

However, while there are lots of companies that are doing Lean or doing Lean Startup, there are precious few companies that are Lean. This is an important distinction, because most often when you do Lean, you are using it as a toolkit, whereas for companies that are Lean, Lean is a fundamental management philosophy that has a dramatic effect on the relationships within the enterprise and also extends beyond the enterprise to the relationship between the company and the society at large.

To understand the distinction, we need to take a look at what Lean is all about.

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Why should primary schools care about Lean?

Why should primary schools care about Lean?It is always exciting to find results being achieved by applying Lean thinking in new environments. So, when I recently came across an article describing how the Bærland Skole primary school in Norway had adopted Lean practices to improve learning results and reduce the administrative burden faced by the teachers, I could not help but reflect on their experiences and think about everything Lean has to offer to education, and primary schools in particular.

In this post, I will summarize the experiences at the Bærland Skole, and consider what Lean can do for primary schools even beyond their achievements.

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If Lean is so great, why are Japanese companies not doing better?

Himeji Castle, JapanI recently came across an interesting, and apparently fairly popular, article on Lean and Japanese management called The Myth of Japanese Companies and Management.

In the article, the author Joseph Paris argues that there is a major disconnect between Lean Six Sigma events and other strategy and finance events in that in the former, a Japanese style of management is seen as something superb, whereas in the latter, mentions of Japanese management hardly make an appearance.

He goes on to argue that most companies have now implemented the tools and methodologies of Lean and Six Sigma into their own continuous improvement programs, and as such, these no longer provide a competitive advantage.

The article does a fine job illustrating its points, but its fundamental misconceptions about Lean do an even better job at illustrating how poorly Lean is understood in the West at large.

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On IKEA Pencil and the Lean lesson within

On IKEA Pencil and the Lean lesson withinSo, IKEA did it again – an excellent parody of the latest Apple launch (The Apple Pencil stylus). This is not the first time IKEA has used Apple parody in its advertisement, either, as last year they had a similar idea with the IKEA catalog launch, the Bookbook – i.e. just an ordinary book – the many virtues of which were elaborated on a spectacular video commercial.

In addition to the fun, there is a deep Lean lesson involved. And hey, given the context of this blog, that’s what I’m really interested in, so let’s take a look.

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Four lessons from QuickyBaby on continuous improvement – and video game streaming

Four lessons from QuickyBaby on continuous improvement – and video game streamingInsights are acquired from surprising places. One such place for me when it comes to continuous improvement and work in general is live video game streaming on Twitch.

In this post, I will dig into four behaviors that are regularly exhibited by the popular World of Tanks (an online team-based tank battle game) streamer QuickyBaby, adopting which can possibly make you a popular streamer, but which can also prove to be useful in many other pursuits in life.

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The building blocks of a dynamic organization

The building blocks of a dynamic organizationI have written about many themes that touch the corporations of today in this blog over the years. Themes such as Lean, social business, dynamic capabilities, Lean Startup, intrinsic motivation, and service-dominant logic each have had their time in the spotlight.

With all these themes and theories, what is the big picture? I believe there is, in fact, quite a coherent picture that can be painted from all these themes, and that picture provides some much-needed answers on what a dynamic organization looks like and how to build one.

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Can all support functions become strategic business partners?

Can all support functions become strategic business partnersCompanies are constantly looking for ways to be more effective and more focused. This places a major strain on the support functions, as they need to prove their worth in creating value for the business or face more and more cost-cutting measures and outsourcing. This has led practically all support functions to seek a deeper partnership status with the core business units. However, therein lies a problem: how many partners can the core business units have? Is it viable for all support functions to become business partners? If it isn’t, which ones of them can reach this level?

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