Is Lean about eliminating waste or not?

Some thought leaders and Lean promoters stress the fact that Lean is about eliminating waste while others seem to get away from this idea.

Could some have been wrong? Is there a shift in Lean Thinking? What is Lean finally about? Is Lean about waste elimination or not?

Well, yes and no.

Defining waste

Waste is an outcome of problems, the result of processes not delivering what is expected but Undesirable Effects instead. In order to avoid the same consequences occurring again in future, something has to be corrected and/or improved.

So when someone mentions eliminating waste, in a Lean Thinking context, it means (should mean) solving problems.

Lean for everyone

As Lean is a philosophy for everyone, not for experts only, it is necessary for people on the shopfloor, manning machines or doing routine administration tasks to develop and hone their Lean awareness and culture by eliminating waste and solving problems.

In order to do that, they have to be trained and coached to identify problems and learn how to solve them. They will do so in their familiar environment first and yes it can turn out as a kind of systematic waste hunting.

On the other end, senior management need to setup the “True North” a far away and visible reference, a Goal to achieve for the organization. It is then necessary to solve the various problems hindering the organization to achieve its Goal and improve the processes accordingly.

This again can be called waste hunting, yet it is (should be) focused onto most important problems (and wastes) standing in the way of the organization’s attempt to achieve its Goal.

Once the True North is defined, everyone is expected to align his/her contribution to the achievement of the organization’s Goal. This means pick and work on the problems necessary to be solved.

So Lean is about waste!?

A Lean transformation is not an all-out elimination of waste, but focusing limited resources on the most important leverage points to let value flow faster to the customer.

For instance, if a machine critical to timely deliver goods to the customer has very few spare capacity and often this capacity is wasted by some problems (e.g. late raw material supply or quality issues), then solving the problems in order to reduce the waste of capacity is meaningful.

If a machine in the same process has a lot of spare, unused capacity, it may be seen as a waste of capacity too, but it would only be counterproductive to reduce this waste by running the machine more than necessary. It would end up with overproduction of unecessary parts, excess inventory and transforming raw material that can no longer be used for producing anything else.

Lean is not about waste when it means optimizing every process step by eliminating waste, simply because the sum of the local optima cannot lead to the system optimum.

Wrapping up

When some Lean promoters state Lean is not about waste, they probably mean Lean is not solely about eliminating waste, as waste elimination is a means, not a goal.

Striving to eliminate all waste will not likely end up with a Lean organization.

Yet solving problems that hinder the organization to achieve its Goal is mandatory and as waste is the result of problems, Lean is about waste.

I hope this helps.

Readers are welcome to share their thoughts.

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