Lean is about waste elimination, or is it?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 21, 2011 · 13 comments

Review any company’s slide decks on lean and you’ll likely find a definition for lean. They’re all a little different, but almost all of them center around one common theme:

the elimination of waste.

So, at least by consensus, this is the definition of lean: the elimination of waste. Of course some are more traditionalist and prefer to use the Japanese words, so it’s the elimination of muda. Besides most people not knowing what muda, is, you have to be careful about the many languages around the world. Would you be surprised to know that in Serbian and Macedonian, muda means “balls”? So imagine the reaction when someone sees this graphic:


I would propose that waste is not the best single word to use in defining lean.

If we had to pick a single word (which, by the way, we don’t), here are three better choices:

1. Value

Value has us focused on the customer. It’s what value we deliver and how we deliver that value. Yes, some will respond to say “once you know what value is, then you work to eliminate whatever is not value” and then we’re back on waste. But that’s only one side of the coin, and the less valuable side of the coin. I’ve never seen an organization cut their way to prosperity. I’ve seen them cut waste on their way to survival. I’ve helped to do that. I’ve seen them cut waste in order to invest in other ways. I’ve seen them cut waste to gain temporary cost advantages in the marketplace. But I’ve never seen an organization cut their way to growth and prosperity. To do that, you must continuous evaluate, understand, and extract new value for customers. This might be in what your deliver, or how you deliver it.

Many companies that are in commodity businesses, where they didn’t seem to have many new ways to deliver value, turned their attention towards how they delivered it. Vendor managed inventory was born out of this line of thinking. Retailers that sold commodities like Home Depot selling sheets of plywood added additional value by renting you a van to haul it in and selling design services so you could walk out the door with the right plans to use that plywood.

Companies that get so focused on eliminating waste that they forget to continually regenerate the delivery of value will not survive in the long run.

2. Alignment

When talking about lean, we use the word “common” quite often: common lens, common language, common method, common thinking. We want to build a culture, which is best described as the common beliefs and behaviors. We want to build standardization, meaning their is a common way to execute a process. In other words, we are aligned both in what we are trying to do and how we are trying to do it.

I think lean is largely about building an organization that has people pulling in the same direction. Building a value stream map is not about the map – it’s about having a common understanding of current reality and building high agreement about where we are going and how we plan to get there.

A lean organization is aligned, both vertically and horizontally. We act out of respect for each other, and the benefit towards each other, as an organization with purpose. Lean is a lot about alignment.

3. Problem

I also think lean is more about problem solving than waste elimination. Having waste is just one type of waste. But lean thinkers are problem solving. They focus both on the process of problem solving and the problems themselves. It is about finding the hidden problems, surfacing them, articulating them, managing them, and yes, solving them.

Lean organizations stare their deepest, ugliest problems in the face. They write them solve and engage in them.

Lean organizations think of strategy development as problem solving. They think of people problems as problem solving. They think, with structure and purpose, their way through any gap.

Yes, waste elimination is great. I’m a big fan.

No, we don’t need a one-word definition for lean.

That being said, since waste seems to be the most associated word with lean, maybe we should give that a little thought.

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1 Chad Walters December 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Jamie –

Excellent concept of focusing on the customer and providing value. Eliminating waste is one thing, but it should always be done with the end customer in mind. Implementing 5S and removing unneeded materials from workspaces does you no good if there are no customers around to whom you provide value.

With your permission, I’d like to quote a couple of things you’ve stated in future blog posts about driving customer satisfaction using lean in sports…please.

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Chad, of course you can quote. Thanks

3 Justin Tomac December 21, 2011 at 9:34 pm

AMEN on your post! I agree Lean has a natural outcome called waste reduction/elimination…BUT the thinking has so much more to offer if people/companies can overcome the natural superficial tendencies.

4 Joe Dager December 22, 2011 at 12:01 am

Jamie, great description of Lean and Value. You must be a marketing guy at heart! Woot, Woot!!

5 Tim McMahon December 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Love you logo change for the holiday. I couldn’t agree more with you on this post. Waste elimination is a poor way to define lean as it is so narrow in scope. I like the way you define it.

6 AliceQ January 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Hey, were you peeking at my slide deck on Intro to Lean?! Of course, it says “Elimination of Waste”. Darn it, now I have to modify the slide deck and put a lot more thought into what I am going to say. 🙂 Really, though, this is a great article to challenge our elevator speeches on Lean. I think I always wrap in the value and problem solving pieces, but I skip over the alignment. And, thinking about where my organization is, that is a gaping hole. Thank you!

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh January 4, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Sorry Alice, just trying to keep you on your toes.

And we work to fill that gaping hole one pebble at a time.

8 JWS January 5, 2012 at 1:34 am

– If the value to the customer is questionable, was the effort at least somewhat wasted? What was the goal again…
– If the alignment of the team was poor – how do we proceed without being wasteful? Certainly it will be hard to effectively go in a coherent and valuable direction…
– If there are problems and you are not solving them – are you not expending effort oe ending up with marginalized output? More waste…

I think to presume a bias onto someone else’s methodology is itself questionable. Lean being someone else’s brainwave… If you have a new philosophy – maybe stepping on theirs is not the path… name yours something else. Or at least take time to understand theirs better.

I have no trouble with waste as the origin of lean. Japan was recovering from a war and trying to move into a modern age… as an island with limited resources. They had failed at least in part during the war because of their own limited local resources – and had a reasonable bias toward making the best use of what they had. The intolerance for waste makes all the sense in the world – both for their mindset – and for all the things it led too. I have no trouble tracing almost everything Lean – back to waste. I think you would find it easy also – the bias against a perhaps negative concept like waste – it is this negativity about waste that has us striving. Problems are the mother of creation and innovation.

9 Jamie Flinchbaugh January 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm

JWS, if the value to the customer isn’t delivered, it’s not waste, it’s nothing. The customer doesn’t show up. I’m not sure which of the 7 wastes that would fit into, but I think Toyota’s early efforts were just as much about improving what value they delivered and not just the waste elimination from the manufacturing system.

I learned a lot from those Ohno taught, and if Ohno were still around today, I’d be happy to ask him. Unfortunately like much of history, we can only interpret what we’ve learned.

10 JWS January 8, 2012 at 3:30 am

I do not think Ohno failed at all to think of value. He even thought about perfection.

In fact, the pursuit of perfection was huge… coming up short in any way, marginalized results or extra effort of any kind, missed opportunity even, time lost(which is never recoverable), regardless of where it happened(not just on the factory floor), in the business world has long been considered waste. Eliminating waste is not making sure it made it to the trash, but making sure it never occured.

When you make a business investment and value is not delivered, standard accounting rules call it a loss. Until there is value delivery, it is all cost and no value. This is not new. Lean has influences pre-dating Deming, to Ford, and others.

Waste is not just something found in a trash can…. if value is not delivered, it is waste. It can be anywhere in the extended value stream – with the suppliers, low quality materials, the delivery time, the effort to unwrap the product, the fruastrating fit for the customer need, the poor support(which should never have been needed). The concept of waste is a lens… that fits almost every thing we do. Seeing this – surely the lens of waste versus perfection is not so elusive.

Ask the team who spent the time and effort. Ask the organization who invested with no result. Nothing – is perhaps the absence of something – but what it cost to deliver that nothing is waste. Until something is delivered – it is all waste. Anytime we say, we could have done better – we are thinking there was waste.

I would not presume to take anything away… only to stop assuming we can speak for another or contest the well-known message on waste. Waste led to many profound insights and great techniques… but to try to make rewrite someone’s thinking or intent or beliefs or history because we can – is like pretending we can ever know the mind of anyone.If its not rude, it still feels like a waste 🙂

I would rather move forward than pretend we can look back with any more clarity than the words we have been given. We should not be picking new words to put in someone else’s mouth – but celebrating the gift of many insights that trace back to the simplest of origins; waste was perhaps not the last word, but I think it well could have been one of the first. The distinction matters.

Not having been there, I would hesitate to presume speaking for him. I spent time in Japan and I am not unfamiliar with the people or the language… but I still would not presume to know the mind of one man. Even if he were living and right in front of me, that is one of the most elusive things there is.

This is all my opinion of course… But I can fit almost everything we do into the spectrum of waste versus perfection. I have no trouble with this simple idea. I think the idea of waste is compelling and easily stands as the origin for everything that followed. As black is the absence of light, waste is any stumble on the path to perfection.

11 Joe Dager January 8, 2012 at 7:50 am

Enjoyed reading the thread. Hate to simplify things, just when it looks like it might get interesting. However, it seems to be me the discussion is whether you want to look at Lean from a lens of a glass being half full (value) or half empty (waste).

I believe it also is relevant on how you use Lean. If you use Lean on the supply side of the equation ridding yourself of waste might be the predominant thought. If you use Lean on the demand side, you may have a tendency to view it more as value producing mechanism.

I think that Lean has evolved from being viewed predominately from the waste terminology. It is just a matter of economic times. In the 90’s we were process driven and had excess demand. Now that the coin has flipped and we have excess supply there is more concentration on the demand side thus value.

The foundational principles laid before us by Ohno are a great basis for understanding. In fact, they have stood the test of time and allowed us to build upon them.

12 Jamie Flinchbaugh January 8, 2012 at 9:51 am

JWS (might as well be anonymous), I’m happy to debate ideas as my track record has shown, but it’s hard to have a debate when you put words in my mouth. I never said anything close to the idea that Ohno didn’t think about value and perfection. And I never, ever, ever pretended to speak for Ohno, only try to interpret him (and many others, and think for myself).

I’m done with this debate, because you seem to want to close the door on it. You say it’s rude to try and know what’s in someone’s mind in the past, but you seem to be the only one who gets to have the definitive answer. So you get to say what he really meant, and the rest of us get to keep our mouths shut. Thanks. but that’s not the kind of discussion I’m interested in.

13 JWS January 8, 2012 at 11:14 am

I guess this came across stronger than intended… I meant only to suggest that waste alone could have been the origin of all the principles and techniques to follow. It even seems to have been stated directly that waste was the foundation. Certainly I did not mean either that you – or Ohno – would omit value or perfection.

Ultimately almost all companies talk about value for the customer. Everyone believes in solving problems… but how do we see them? The focus on waste to me is what makes lean different. I liked Joe’s response… They are two sides of the same coin. I have always been on the supply/creation side. But I am not sure the techniques are so clear – if we only look at value, problem-solving, and alignment. So many methods and organizations espouse these ideas – and yet fail ultimately to think lean. For me, getting far from the waste concept risks the one thing that made it stand out. We got everything else – and keep it(IMHO) – by never forgetting waste. My concern was not being right – but not throwing out the baby. Humble apologies.

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