April 20, 2021, I was driving through an intersection close to home when I suddenly saw a red sedan run the stoplight at full speed. I managed to avoid them and, alarmed but safe, I continued through the intersection. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a second vehicle barreling through the red light directly at me. There wasn’t time for the SUV to slow down. A split second later, the car struck me. The impact deployed my airbags and sent my car spinning into oncoming traffic.
Bystanders rushed to help me and the other driver. Some of the onlookers were nurses and EMTs and I was amazed at how quickly their instincts kicked in, even though they weren’t on duty. They checked to make sure I was okay, and I was. I had a bruise on my forehead and some ringing and deafness in my ears from the airbag. My adrenaline was pumping, and I just wanted to get out of the car, but I was okay.
The pictures show the gravity of the collision. Fortunately, although my car had to be towed, the other driver was able to drive home with no injuries. I was a little bruised and shaken, but basically unharmed. After I got checked out by the paramedics and filed a police report, I literally walked away from a brush with death and went home.
I walked away with more than just my life that day. That accident taught me an important lesson: I can’t control everything. The fact that I was a good driver, and that I’d managed to avoid one speeding red-light-runner didn’t matter. There was just no way I could have predicted a second distracted driver.
In value engineering, we strive to avoid losing control by constantly identifying and preparing for worst case scenarios. In projects and in life, we try to plan for everything. Sure, occasionally we can successfully steer ourselves clear of a collision. But most of the time, despite our best efforts, things are just out of our control.
"I walked away with more than just my life that day. That accident taught me an important lesson: I can’t control everything."
Three powerful lessons
1. It’s okay to learn the lesson and walk away.
Maybe you wanted to implement a big change, but the funds weren’t approved. Maybe you were making great progress with a new program, and then the pandemic hit. Sometimes that learning process is all you’re left with at the end of the day. Reflect on the lessons you’ve learned and value them. They alone are worth the experience. As a value engineer, I show people that learning is just as important as improving.
2. No matter how in control you think you are, there are things you can’t predict.
We draft project charters, and we encourage the use of a problem-solving framework. We try to control every step of the process, but in the end, we can’t control the behavioral inertia of a project. This shouldn’t discourage the use of templates, formulas, and known best practices. It’s also important to understand that things may happen and it’s no one’s fault. This is why organizations that use Lean for strategy planning are nimble, open to change and can adapt quickly. Market change, consumer demand, or even natural disasters can disrupt supplies. Lean organizations have learned to adjust their goals when these events happen.
3. Focus on what you can change and accept that you can’t address everything.
People try to change too much all at once. One very clear piece of advice I heard once was that our lives are like a staircase, and each day we have to keep climbing up. Some days we can only go up a little, and other days we’ll find we can climb further. It’s okay to take small steps, and occasionally you’ll get to the big steps—or the innovations. I’ve been in many meetings where people were frustrated those improvements felt out of their control. My observation is that, even if those big innovations are out of reach, focus on the little changes that are within your control. Make those. Even if you can’t make a change, you can make the best out of the situation by embracing the learning process.
I really liked that car, it was fun and was reliable. But it is just a car. Seeing it damaged hurt my feelings, but knowing that no one was hurt was more important