How to think about waste in knowledge work


A principle of lean thinking is to remove waste – anything that stops us from producing our product or service for a paying customer.

This is called muda in Japan and seven ways to create waste are especially important to manufacturing organisations.

They can also be used to think about knowledge work and if we are doing it effectively or not.

Take transport for example. Are we moving work between locations unnecessarily?

This can be as simple as splitting a process up between teams, so that one team focuses on just one part and the other team on another.

This is a good way of creating silos – where people focus on their bit and forget the overall system and waiting customer.

Having a small group of multi-skilled individuals close together that can handle the entire process from starting the project to delivering to the customer reduces this type of transport and waste.

What might inventory look like in knowledge work?

Could it be the collection of reports, analyses, studies, comments, meeting notes and so on that accompany the simplest of projects or decisions?

Is all that really necessary?

A lean organisation can design and test a product with a customer and iterate to a finished version in the time it takes for another to come up with specifications.

Motion simply adds heat to a process. The best knowledge work gets done when people sit down and work on a single task for a stretch of time.

Flapping between projects, having to check in all the time with managers and getting interrupted break the flow of work, raise stress levels and increase the total time needed to do the job.

Then there is the time we spend waiting. Meetings are places where we wait – where interminable discussions happen to decide what to do.

We spend so much time in meetings that there is little time left over to do any of the work or actions that come out of them.

Or, we often do too much – over-processing the work we need to do.

Modern computer systems are so powerful that we can do almost anything on them – which means we spend ages selecting fonts and sizes and colours and logos and header placement instead of creating content or analysis.

User interfaces that try and make things simple don’t help.

A quote from an old newsgroup says that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) make simple things simple and complex things impossible.

Closely related to over-processing is overproduction.

There is little point creating work-in-progress that has to go through a bottleneck.

It makes more sense to work to the capacity of the bottleneck and spend the rest of the time working on a different project or improving the performance of the bottleneck.

And finally, there are defects.

Defects in knowledge work often result from not understanding the end result well enough and rushing to create something too quickly.

Information degrades quickly it is passed along links in the chain of communication.

For example a customer speaks to a sales person who speaks to an operational manager who asks an analyst to do some work who then creates something.

It is almost a certainty that the something that is created is not what the customer had in mind.

The problem is that knowledge work is not as visible as manufacturing – we don’t see piles of inventory piling up.

We may only see a cluttered desk and be aware of late projects.

We’ll also see the effect of waste in rising stress levels among colleagues.

And all that’s just a waste.

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