Some thoughts about waste and waste reduction

· October 16, 2014

Every Lean practitioner goes through a phase of “waste elimination frenzy”. At least the ones I’ve met. Ah, well…. I did at least. This usually happen in the beginning of your Lean journey when you realise that if you can remove waste the flow would be improved and value will be created faster and more effective.

Now we go out on a hunt to find that pesky waste. Kill it! Off with it head! We search for it high and low. “This is wasteful - let’s stop it!”, “This report is that really adding value… I think it’s waste”, “Why should have this meeting/function/role/process? WASTE!”

I think this is where many Lean initiatives goes wrong. We’re so focused on removing things instead of adding value. It’s savings, reduction and removals where it should be improvements, values and focus on people.

From time to time I see people myself try to define waste. So we easily know what we can remove and what stays. I’m not saying that this is not fruitful, it’s just … hold on I’ll get there. Yesterday I saw a really fun and good way of having you think about what is waste and not, by Jon Terry:

Everyone is against waste. But what is it? Rule of thumb: Waste is anything that your customer wouldn’t pay for if you itemized your bill — Jon Terry (@leankitjon) October 14, 2014

I shared what I learned from David J Andersson as a good way to identify what is waste or not. It was quite the wake-up call for me, but it’s a very sharp tool. David said that standup-meetings was waste, in the true Lean-sense. The agileist in me rebuked of course and then David said:

Well… if it’s not wasteful it’s adding value. So why don’t you do more of it? Let’s do it all day long?

And I forcefully answered: “Oh yeah?! But a……aeeee….. yeah, you are correct. Sir.”

What’s a little waste really?

Because it’s true. Standup is not directly adding value.

Just as raising the hammer to hit the nail is not driving the nail into the board. It’s just preparing to do that. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better, more effective way to drive nails into the board. Like a nail gun. Or do we need nails altogether? The value comes from the finished product, not the individual nailed boards. Maybe we should glue them together?

Let’s bring it back to standup. Most people I’ve met find these short meetings valuable. But they are, in the true lean-sense, waste. How can this be?

I learned a little phrase (also from David J Andersson, if I’m not mistaken) that helped me to get this clear:

Value trumps flow, flow trumps waste elimination

What this means is that we’re first of all focusing on getting value - being effective, reaching our goal. After that to have a good flow in our system and then on waste elimination. Or in other words: if there are a way to get more value out of our system without flow (?!) we take that route. And if we can get flow with waste still present we don’t need to eliminate the waste - we have flow.

Many Lean initiatives goes the other way; eliminate the waste to get better flow to get value.

What is waste elimination good for then?

I think it’s important to understand that waste elimination is just a tool to make our process more efficient. But it’s not a goal in itself to eliminate waste. The goal is to increase the value that the system is producing.

Meaning that the hunt for waste should be treated as you smell the diapers of a baby (to borrow from Kent Beck and his code smells analogy):

If smell something bad you should at least investigate. It doesn’t have to mean problems, but it’s worth a quick check just to make sure…

Or closer to the topic at hand:

Waste in the system should at least be investigated. Maybe there’s problems that are hindering us, maybe not. Better check it out.

So the next time someone says; “I heard that Marcus said that estimating/standup meetings/[your favorite long held practice here]” you can reason with that stubborn consultant.

  • Yes, but we get better flow from this (as the case of standup, due to information sharing)
  • Yes, but our system is producing value faster (as might be the case of estimates… who knows)
  • Ok, let’s see if there’s another way to write our code with less errors faster than to do TDD. I’m open to find out, if you can show me the increase in flow or value.

Waste reduction is about becoming more efficient…. but that’s not as important as becoming more effective.

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