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Employee blog: Lean learnings turn outdoor accident into real-life case study


When American Family Insurance employee Lydia Reid broke her ankle in three places while canoeing in the Boundary Waters, she distracted herself from the pain by evaluating the rescue and medical operations through the Lean lens of waste identification and continuous improvement. Even though Lydia didn’t immerse herself in Lean until joining AmFam’s Lean Customer Value team in 2017, her story shows how this way of thinking has become part of who she is.

While on a canoe trip this summer in the Boundary Waters, I tripped on a root during a portage, stumbled on my right ankle and landed on my left – breaking it in three places.

But, my story is not one of despair. Rather, it’s one of preparation and using my Lean thinking to help me through a painful event.

On the preparation front, our group had two people trained in wilderness first-aid. One just happened to be my husband, Dan.

When I fell, Dan immediately went into medic mode and no time was wasted due to his standardization and upkeep of his first-aid kit. Dan quickly wrapped my ankle in a SAM splint, gave me some over-the-counter pain medicine and carried me a quarter mile to our canoe.

He then solo-paddled me seven miles (after we had already paddled 10 miles that morning). Dan knew that although some might see this as a slower solution, he could complete the trip himself rather than handing me off to other group members along the way. This decision saved me pain during transfers and meant we didn’t have to waste time by going ashore and trading out paddlers.

When we got to the Grand Marais, Minnesota emergency room five hours later, I admired the efficient garage-door entry. It lifted me from me right from my car into the evaluation space. The flow of this intake process reflected a true focus on and value to the customer as I did not need to go through the waiting room and admissions process.

While in Duluth for surgery the next day, I found myself frustrated by all the crisscross movement around my room. The medical team not only wasted time and effort moving around, but also focused more on the process rather than me, the patient.

To distract myself, I drew a spaghetti diagram in my head tracing the path of each person. I then mentally rearranged the process steps for a more logical work flow.

As the day wore on, I was in greater physical distress due to the medical team’s oversight of my immediate need – pain management. Although the room had a white board, the staff failed to keep it up-to-date.

As a result, neither they nor I knew when it was safe to provide/ask for more pain medicine. The medical team seemed unaware of the time gap, while I felt every second of the delayed dosage.

A simple white board list could have made it clear at a glance when medicine was due and would have prevented my pain and disruptive calls to the nurses’ station. As it was, multiple patients were affected as a team member had to stop working with a different patient to address my “fire drill.”

After arriving home, my family and I created a safe, efficient environment. We used Lean thinking to create “5 S” space for my recovery.

We (OK, my husband and son) straightened, sorted, standardized, shined and sustained a downstairs location where I spent most of my three week at home recovery time. This made our lives much easier, because everything was close at hand and replenished as needed, in a clean, uncluttered environment.

They didn’t waste time or rush around to meet my needs at the last second, and I had peace of mind to focus on my job at hand – healing.

In working with my physical therapist, I have focused on consistent strengthening and range-of- motion exercises. As a result, I have seen incremental improvements during the last few weeks, closing the gap between where I was and where I need to be.

Right now, I am out of my walking boot and walking with less of a limp each day.

As you can see, since joining the Lean Customer Value team, I constantly (even when under duress) think about how to:

  • Assess situations for waste.

  • Recognize efficiency.

  • Determine process improvements for more value-add workflow and problem resolution.

It’s just part of who I am.