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The HOW of High Performing Continual Improvement: The Hunt for WASTE

The HOW of High Performing Continual Improvement: The Hunt for WASTE

We started the discussion of HOW continual improvement produces extraordinary benefits with the important concepts of VALUE and WASTE. We covered the primary importance of adding value for customers and how everyone in the organization needs to understand what customers value and how it is impacted by their daily actions. See more about VALUE.

But what about Waste? It is generally defined as any activity that consumes resources without creating value for the customer. Where value can be seen as helping the effectiveness of the business, reducing waste can improve the efficiency of producing that value and freeing up time for more value adding activities. An understanding of waste helps the team see much more potential for improvement and where to look.  Additionally, waste not only squanders business resources but it also frustrates workers. It is workers who experience the aggravations caused by interruptions, searching, moving, rework, and other forms of waste.


What is the size of the opportunity? Huge! During an introductory course in continual improvement, we ask participants from all types of organizations to indicate how much time they spend during the day in two types of waste- searching for “stuff” (material, information, people) and resolving defects or “Things gone wrong”. After asking the question of thousands of people, the average answer is 2-5 hours per day (or an average of 44% of their work time). And this is only for two of the forms of waste!

Calculate how many hours you can free up for other value adding activities or growth with the same resources in your organization if you could free up only 50% of these two wastes!

Still not convinced? Using a work process improvement method such as Kaizen[1] the first time in a work process typically results in a 30-50% reduction in labor which can be used to grow, increase capacity or for other value-adding activities.


So, what does waste look like?

Definitions and understanding of waste, as it applies to work processes and organizations, have evolved from at least the early 1900’s[2] to the current day.  Today’s nomenclature is largely based on work developed by Toyota (Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System) and popularized as a key concept in the Lean improvement methodology.  They start by categorizing waste into 3 types or wasteful practices to be eliminated:

MURA; A Japanese term for unevenness, irregularity, or inconsistency. An example would be work processes that have wait steps or interruptions or workloads that vary greatly across time causing team members to hurry and then wait. This type is often addressed by levelling scheduling driven by customer demand, flexibility of the workforce and visual techniques to control and add attention to the pace of work.

MURI; A Japanese term for overburden, unreasonableness or absurdity. It refers to excessive demands on workers (does not allow sufficient time to achieve the correct standard of work), or the overburdening of equipment. This type is often addressed by clarity of standardized work, work process improvements and balancing work content with customer demand and available work time.

MUDA; The Japanese term that refers to waste as a range of non-value adding activities. These are any activity that consumes resources without creating value for the customer. As mentioned above, it refers to any activity that, when first implemented, does not materially change a product or service output in a way for which a well-informed and reasonable customer is willing to pay. These non-value added activities exist in virtually all work processes that produce products, services and overhead (enabling) activities. And they also apply to physical (manufacturing) or information environments.

To help people see Muda better in their work processes, it is often divided into observable forms or categories that focus on resources (people, material, equipment) that are often wasted.



Give it a try! Pick a simple work process and see if you can find examples of each form of waste. Note that before improving a waste, often people separate the wastes into two types:

TYPE 1– non-value added however it is currently required by the customer or law/regulation

TYPE 2: non-value added and not required by customer or law/regulation

Both types are waste however it may be easier to start with Type 2 waste improvements!


An understanding and awareness of waste can be used in an organization from top to bottom and in long term strategy to daily work for achieving significant benefits.

  • Using the concepts to challenge the organization to look at itself in new ways and believe it has a larger potential for performance.
  • Designing the delivery of new products and services in new, less waste ways.
  • Analyzing product or service “value streams” to identify opportunities to significantly improve capacity, speed, quality and cost
  • Redesigning of organization structures to reduce overhead
  • Improving specific work processes by eliminating and reducing wastes
  • Solving daily problems throughout the organization so they stay solved

An understanding of waste helps the organization see the opportunities better, apply the most appropriate problem-solving approach and get better insight into solutions that are effective and “stick”.

What can you as a leader start doing to eliminate WASTE and improve your organization?  Let’s start by…

  1. Teaching everyone in the organization the concepts and forms of waste. Make sure they can see examples in their role. This is for everyone (leadership to entry level) and in all sections of the organization, e.g., shop floor, order entry, financial, purchasing and human resources. Waste exists everywhere!
  2. Have leadership set the tone:
    • Communicate that identifying and eliminating waste is everyone’s responsibility
    • Ensure that identifying Wastes is recognized as positive (remember that problems are gold) and no “shooting the messenger”
    • Role model the behavior- go visit the work processes with your people (go to the Gemba), listen, look and help them identify wastes and solutions
    • Eliminate waste in your leadership work processes
  3. Get the organization educated in improvement methods (e.g., cause and effect analysis, 5S, Kaizen, Mistake Proofing, Flow) that enable teams to get at the root causes of the identified wastes and put in place effective solutions.
  4. Learn from your problem-solving efforts and share across the organization
  5. Measure the improvement, celebrate the successes and never stop – there is always more to do…

[1] Kaizen definition: Kaizen simply means “change for the better”.  Kaizen is a way of life, a management principle, and a method.  The Kaizen event method is a team-based approach to problem solving that flows through all phases of the improvement cycle effectively and rapidly. Before the event, a Kaizen-appropriate problem is identified along with goals in areas such as customer satisfaction, cycle time and labor reduction, and error elimination. The team is then mobilized and a Kaizen event begins.  A typical event uses a systematic process to identify waste in the targeted work process, to enable the team to understand and analyze the root causes, to identify and test solutions, to learn, to install improvements, and to create a system for ongoing improvement. As the event progresses, numerous continual improvement and change management methods and techniques are applied. All this work is accomplished in a brief period of time, typically 5 days, with full benefits achieved within 1-3 months.

[2] In 1915, Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, American industrial psychologists categorized work tasks into effective and ineffective types (wastes) known as “therbligs”, a reversal of the name Gilbreth, with ‘th’ transposed.