An introduction to waste and a step into Lean

    source:  https://www.deviantart.com/mindgem/art/Graffiti-piece-Waste-91909811

    Elimination of these seven kinds of waste can help companies reduce costs, increase employee engagement and customer happiness, and increase profits.” 1

    In April 2020, we ran an Agile workshop on Kanban at Eagle Eye. In the build-up to the workshop, I was introduced to waste (kudos to Dan Mathews) and wanted to learn more … a lot more. What followed was a pathway towards Lean thinking.

    I’ve been around Developers long enough that I’ve heard waste mentioned a lot. BUT waste isn’t a developer problem, it’s an organisation problem. What I hope to do in writing this piece is tune people into waste so that we have a better awareness and understanding of waste as a business and a better foundation for the Lean blog(s) to follow.

    I must stress that this isn’t an Agile or a Developer / Engineering blog and that waste is an organisation issue, so this blog should be of as much interest to Sales, Marketing and (Project) Delivery as it to Engineering.

    To understand Lean, you must understand lean manufacturing. And to understand lean manufacturing, you must understand waste.

    The Toyota problem

    To produce only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed." Taiichi Ohno

    In the 1940's Toyota had a problem. In fact, they had several. They were entering the car market in Japan and had to make cars in small quantity due to limited demand. They had to make them as cheap as possible. And the company was on the edge of bankruptcy, so the stakes were high.

    What follows is purely theoretical with hopefully an element of truth therein. They thought about their problem, but not for too long. They set a time frame of three years to compete with the established American car manufacturers and got going. They used a Kanban system so that they pulled parts when they were needed to the production line (aka just in time production).

    That’s great as it is but the story doesn’t end there, luckily for us. At the core of what became the Toyota way was removing waste. They obsessed about waste to the extent that they came up with the seven forms of waste. They looked to cut waste from their (production) system wherever they could, so much so that they raised the suspicions of the authorities who thought that they must be doing something fraudulently.

    There’s tales of when a problem was encountered, they’d stop the production line, swarm on the issue, fix it and then re-start the production line. Waste was applied to people and machinery, materials and product, processes and tools. In 10 years, productivity improved four times. Lean manufacturing, with its focus on waste and just in time production transformed the manufacturing space for ever.

    What is waste?

    Waste is any activity that does not deliver value to the customer. There are two forms of waste, necessary and unnecessary waste. Necessary waste are things like testing, planning and reporting which are required, however may not add value directly to the customer. Unnecessary waste or pure waste is just that – any activity that is not necessary, does not deliver value to the customer and should be removed as quickly as possible. In most organisations at least one form of pure waste will exist, often several.

    The seven forms of waste

    The seven types of waste that were identified by the Toyota Production System are briefly outlined below.

    Inventory: a surplus of materials, machinery or product 

    Motion: inefficient movement of people, machines or materials

    Waiting: idle time, idle processes, idle machinery

    Over processing: unnecessary or over-engineered processes

    Over production: producing too much product for the market

    Defects: faults with the product

    Transportation: moving of materials or goods

    When explaining waste, the one everyone gets is waiting because we’ve all had exposure to it. A delayed response to your question, proposal or request stops you in your tracks. Maybe you switch focus to something else while you wait, so your focus is now diluted. Then you get a response, can proceed but you are now immersed in a new problem, or solution.

    If you decrease inventory, you have more cash available to you. This was a big mindset change at the time, for an industry used to mass production and just in case production, meaning it was the norm to have an excess of inventory just in case there was a surge in demand for the product.

    Motion or the movement of people, machinery and materials can be wasteful because they may not be value adding activities. Overprocessing is waste because you may be working on something nobody wants. Transportation should be as efficient as possible and in the required quantity. And we all know about defects.

    Overproduction of goods triggers all the other types of waste, so is seen as the worst form of waste.

    Waste mapped to our world

    The waste of manufacturing can easily be mapped to the waste of today, and some don’t need to be as they are as relevant today as they have always been.

    In a software context, you could say that no value is received until the software is in the hands of the customer and we get the feedback loop working. Inventory is in flight or incomplete features. Task or project switching is akin to the transportation waste and over processing is adding extra features that the customer hasn’t asked for and doesn’t want. Annoying ‘help’ paper clip anyone?

    If we take task switching for a moment, usually because of the waiting waste we increase the amount of inventory in motion and the likely outcome is that the work will take longer, and because it now has our split focus with something else that the quality of the work could be compromised. Task switching is likely a common issue to us all.

    So, what should we do about waste?

    Seeing waste

    There are a few marvellous and extreme examples of waste in action. My favourite is the car that was lost in a factory for years, hidden amongst a surplus of materials (inventory waste). However, this does illustrate something rather well.

    Sometimes we only see waste when we look up around us, go for a walk or draw it out. There’s more to it than that, but not a lot more and I will pick this up again when I get to the Lean blog(s). For now, just to say that if we are all more aware of and tuned into waste and want to see waste more clearly, there are some simple tools to help us.


    It takes almost a year to produce a can of coke, from the mining of the tin to the customer consuming the product. Within that the value added time, the time that is spent producing something of value for the customer is roughly three hours.

    There will be examples of waste across our business. Do we hide it like the car in the factory or do we get our heads up, have a walk around (when we can again) and look to see waste so that we can tackle it? The smart answer is that we should be more curious about waste, have conversations about waste and look to see waste across the organisation.

    Once we can see it, we can act on it and look to reduce or remove it. And when we start doing that the impact can be far greater than our balance sheet, it can have a positive effect on wellbeing, happiness, purpose, empowerment and beyond.

    This has been an introduction to waste, however it’s also a small introduction to Lean. The elimination of waste is the most fundamental Lean principle, so taking the time to explore waste starts us towards having some Lean conversations. Having a better understanding of waste is only the first step towards Lean thinking. And Lean thinking, however you are currently working can only help us to improve.


    1 https://www.everlean.de/en/7-types-of-waste


    Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, Mary and Tom Poppendieck, 2003

    Managing the Design Factory: A Product Developers Tool kit, Donald G. Reinertsen, 1998

    Taiichi Ohno on the Toyota Production System, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK6vyFz7yrM and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v429BrFiYEk

    The Seven Types of Waste, https://www.everlean.de/en/7-types-of-waste

    7 Wastes of Lean, https://kanbanize.com/lean-management/value-waste/7-wastes-of-lean

    5 Lean Principles Every Engineer Should Know, https://www.asme.org/topics-resources/content/5-lean-principles-every-should-know

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