Baby Daddy

Bringing up Baby, the Lean and Agile Way

April 17, 2020
Stuck at home during a pandemic? Put your process expertise to use.

Coronavirus has changed a lot of things in America—especially in urban areas, where there are heightened precautions. It is even more chaotic when you have your first newborn baby, like my wife and me.

Babies are very different from manufacturing floors; however, there are certain processes that must be repeated over and over. Caring for newborns is a good example of how one has to adjust in a rapidly changing customer demand environment—the “customer” being the baby, of course.

Here are some ways that we can apply what we know from lean manufacturing and agile product development to being new parents.

1. Understand the customer’s needs and design your product and process accordingly

Excited relatives and friends are showering you with gifts, but you may be confused about what you actually need. The truth is: Less than you think, but how do you know what? Answer: with good product management. Consider the use cases that your newborn has: he eats, he sleeps, he produces copious dirty diapers, and he needs love and comfort. That's about it.

A useful technique to understand what you really need is by observing a customer proxy in situ. Before your baby is born, ask to visit a friend’s baby for a few hours (virtually during the quarantine). They will love the company and your help. After research, write a use case for the customer, or make a value-stream map. Document the capital, consumables, and info you need to help the customer accomplish their goals.

You will only need a small amount of capital equipment (bassinet, bottles, pump, stroller, clothes, etc.), and some variable supplies (diapers, cream, perhaps formula). What about all those nice gifts you don’t need now?  Store them in a closet, or basement storage. If you make a mistake, you can always retrieve the items from storage.

Replenish the assembly line from receiving rather than accumulating inventory on the line

It is often cheaper to buy things in bulk, and it assures that you will not run out of critical elements, such as diapers. During the pandemic, you want to limit the amount of deliveries, pickups, or shopping trips for safety. Therefore, keep a reasonable level of consumable inventory. This is not “anti-lean”: Minimizing inventory beyond the break-even stock-out point increases costs and delays operations. Overengineering supply chains causes problems by destroying adequate buffers (consider recent toilet paper challenges).

What do you do with bulk containers increasing your clutter anxiety? Create your own distribution center or receiving area in an underused area of your apartment. Decide how many days of supply you need within easy reach for normal operations. The rest of it can be stored for replenishing the line regularly.  

Ergonomic Newborn Care Cells

Lean manufacturing teaches that transporting goods (your newborn and the stuff he needs) from place to place is non-value added work. (When you are sleep deprived at 3 a.m. with a crying baby, you will learn that lesson viscerally.) Therefore, you need to set up a “newborn manufacturing cell.”  For example, we have our changing table, clothes storage, floor mat mobile, etc. in our living room, rather than in a second bedroom. Because my wife is nursing, we can work as a team with one of us sleeping, while the other is watching the TV, on the laptop, holding a fussy baby, or changing a diaper.

Eventually, you will spread back out to the rest of the house, but the first few days or weeks you want the tightest manufacturing footprint possible.

Product Modularity

Your stroller and baby carrier are a storage challenge. Get a modular travel system, which will allow you to carry the baby in the carrier, snap him into the base in your car(s), and snap him into your stroller.

Strollers do get stolen, but if you live in a secure apartment complex, use your foyers and stairwells to your advantage. Use large landings/foyers, outside of the flow of traffic, to store the items, freeing a 2’x3’ manufacturing space.

As a consultant, I've learned to be able to travel light and in an efficient way. The same is true for your newborn operations. Invest in lightweight caddies and bags with lots of pockets. You  will never regret the investment in the right couple of bags that eliminate other bags and drive efficiency.

Vertical Space Is Free

This principle is from marine shipping  and lean. In old ships, space is at a premium, just like in your city apartment. Sailors think of not only two-dimensional floor space, but also the space above it, hanging items and using floor-to-ceiling drawers.

Instead of having a separate changing table, we put a changing topper on top of a low dresser with plenty of storage that will become a great piece of furniture later for our son. We mounted artwork and a mobile on the wall. On top of the nearby radiator covers, we put more storage. You will be amazed how much more space you gain when you start to think of going up, rather than going out.

Agile Meal Planning

Meal planning is challenging with a newborn needing 24/7 care. Worse, during the quarantine, family cannot cook for you or bring meals. You want to avoid doing too many deliveries or carryouts from restaurants. Try these strategies instead:.

  • While pregnant, build “food infrastructure.”  Cook meals that freeze well for those nights you do not have energy to cook.
  • Create your Agile backlog of meal Story Cards—20 to 30 recipes that you or your spouse can execute quickly.
  • Do a nightly stand-up meeting. Depending on tastes and your inventories, decide what to eat tomorrow from your cards. In the morning, pull ingredients from the freezer to defrost. We have gotten most meals down to less than 15 minutes of prep.
  • Pool ingredients from the different cards for efficient ordering, requiring less pick-ups.

Statistical Baby Control

Parents are often confused and worried about whether a product is healthy. Tracking a few simple Key Process Indicators (e.g. the number of wet and dirty diapers, and the time and duration of nursing) will allow your pediatrician to put your mind at ease, or catch any problem quickly. There are Internet and mobile apps that make doing this easy. Sadly, many are not multi-user, so we use a simple Google spreadsheet. It only takes 10 minutes to set up a spreadsheet template and 30 seconds to enter an event.

When you are extremely tired or frustrated, even 30 seconds may seem hard. The lean manufacturing solution is a whiteboard. Record the event with a two-second pen stroke on the control board. When rested, transfer to the Google spreadsheet. Share the spreadsheet with your pediatrician via email.

Digital Dashboarding for Efficient Communications to other Stakeholders

Have you ever thought you are wasting too much time giving status reports to stakeholders who are not even involved in the project? Guess what—when you have a newborn, especially when people cannot be on-site to visit you, the demands for communication and project status will be massive. There are many excited and interested people with titles, such as chief spoiling pofficer (grandparents) or marketing & PR (friends). They want continuous updates, and this exhausts your meager time resources.

So what is the solution?  Broadcast your status updates to all stakeholders and meet with individuals as needed. There are many completely free options, including:

  • General photo sharing apps (e.g. Google Photo)
  • Family-specific or child-specific photo sharing websites
  • Social media platforms
  • Blog platforms
  • Project / team communication platforms

Select a platform with the same criteria you would use in selecting a dashboarding, metric, and update platform in a product development or manufacturing environment. 

Digital dashboarding will make your stakeholders feel connected and save a lot of 1:1 status reports. Another option is to set-up weekly web-video status meetings for product reviews with many stakeholders at once. The only upfront investment required is assembling names and email addresses.

Home Kaizen Sessions

Having a newborn is a combination of a startup environment and a factory. You are doing the same things repeatedly, but the response of the customer is continuously changing. It is easy to lose perspective in the daily grind. Things that seemed trivial before, now seem like herculean tasks.

Planning and reflection often take a back seat. Both parents should sit down together every few days or once a week and talk about what works well and poorly. From these kaizen sessions, you can improve the process and order more appropriate tools.

Having a newborn is joyful, even in the midst of the coronavirus. However, it is challenging, especially in the city, versus a large suburban home. Just because you may not be working or not as much, does not mean that you cannot re-apply some of the lessons you know to help make the newborn experience much more enjoyable and efficient.

Eric Arno Hiller is the managing partner of Hiller Associates, a consulting firm specializing in Product Cost Management (PCM), should-cost, design-to-value and software product management.  He is a former McKinsey & Company engagement manager and operations expert. Before McKinsey, Hiller was the co-founder and founding CEO of two high technology start-ups: aPriori (a PCM software platform) and TADA.today.  He has also worked in product development and manufacturing at Ford Motor Co., John Deere, and Procter & Gamble. Hiller is the author of the PCM blog www.ProductProfitAndRisk.com.  He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s and bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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