The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 1


Yes, Lean initiatives can be started bottom-up, but I doubt they’ll get very far and last for long. Here is why.

Bottom-up Lean initiatives, e.i. improvements, are opportunities for improvement found by shopfloor people, line leaders or shop management. “Improvement” is most often understood in a broad meaning and bring up suggestions ranging from make worker routine job easier, fix small problems, make the workplace more enjoyable, achieve their work more efficiently and maybe add some value for end customers.

In order to awaken the staff to finding such opportunities, an initial training about Lean principles, the seven wastes (the infamous muda!) is often necessary, with “kaizen events” organized to hunt wastes and frame the initiatives.

Most often the improvement suggestions and bottom-up Lean initiatives remain in this format: a moderated, paced, focused and framed series of periodic workshops. The events are planned and not problem-driven, done when the workload allows it, which means when people have time and management agreement to distract some resources and time from regular operations.

Here lays a triple pitfall:

  1. People do not develop an autonomous Lean Thinking culture, but keep playing the assistants of some appointed Lean “genius”(1). If the latter is not available, the event cannot happen (so common when “black belts” are mandatory) and chances are that the knowledge gathered during these events will not remain with the team, but go away with the facilitator instead
  2. Problems are not tackled when they appear, failing to use the opportunity for learning from a real, actual and acute case. The muda hunters are set loose to “find something to improve” when the kaizen event is scheduled
  3. As the kaizen events are scheduled and too often subordinate to low workload, the “continuous improvement” is erratic in frequency, inconsistent with learning, problem solving and likely to be stopped for good at some point because “We have no time”.

The format and drawbacks of those events is not the sole reason for making me doubt about bottom-up Lean initiatives being viable. Those bottom-up ideas and initiatives assume that the suggestions will lead to real improvements.

Yet how many of them are nothing else than improving the workplace comfort, changing something to workers’ preferences or taste while assuming this will ultimately lead to (noticeable) performance improvement?

I’ve seen many such “improvements” agreed because management wanted to show willingness to back up bottom-up suggestions, foster workers’ commitment and not discourage them from the beginning. Other suggestions were agreed on the belief they would indeed improve “something”.

Yet most often the evidence of the improvement is not delivered, and no kind of measurement is set up to demonstrate the gain. I am not even expecting for an indisputable demonstration of the cause-and-effect relationship linking the “improvement” to a positive increase of performance, a trustworthy correlation would suffice.

Worse, the good idea in say manufacturing is to have parts unpacked and presented ready to assemble for assembly line workers. The unpacking and display of parts is pushed upstreams to the logistic team feeding the lines. As production lines productivity is measured and closely watched, their efficiency may well go up when the parts preparation is get rid of.

For the logistics team it’s another story, it must absorb additional workload without compensation and as usually its productivity is not measured, nobody sees the waste simply moved to it, perhaps at the expense of other useful activities.

Even worser: Value Stream Mapping is one of the most popular Lean tool and used as a waste revelator. So Value Stream Maps flourish and again muda hunters are set loose to eliminate waste. What the mappers overlook in the first place is the value of the stream they are mapping. And sometimes the process under scrutiny is a pure waste that is noticeable when seen from broader perspective, or higher altitude if you will. But this vantage point isn’t familiar to shopfloor staff.

Isn’t it ironic they put means and time to optimise possible waste? A Lean-deadly sin…

What happens so often next with bottom-up initiatives is top management asking where the beef is. After all, time and resources have been used to “improve”, so where is the return on this investment? And getting no convincing answer, the whole is finally put on hold and frustrated stakeholders conclude that Lean doesn’t work. (2)

Summing up

  • Scheduled and framed workshops are not the best way to develop a Lean culture, especially if it’s the only “continuous improvement” mode
  • Teams remain helpers to the appointed Lean / Six Sigma champion, barely develop a Lean culture
  • Bottom-up initiatives are too often based on unchallenged assumptions regarding the outcome, started on wishful thinking
  • Middle management often lacks the courage to discard suggestions that will obviously not lead to meaningful improvement
  • Improvements are too often local optimizations at the expense of the greater good
  • Shopfloor staff don’t know the bigger picture, hence improve what they see and know, reinforcing the previous point
  • Proof of the reality of the improvement is not systematically delivered
    At some point top management will put an end


(1) “Genius with a Thousand Helpers”, in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
(2) I do not approve the way some companies require a calculation of a ROI prior to any change, because the way many costs are defined are questionable. Sometimes improvement are hard or even impossible to express in numbers: reduction of Lead Time, neatness, morale…That’s why I mentioned “correlations”.

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From Obeya to wallpaper show room

When visual management turns into useless wallpaper

Having an Obeya is the latest – fashionable – sign an organization takes Lean seriously. The name itself sounds performing as is it is so strongly related to Lean.

Obeya may sound both exotic and performing, but is nothing more than a “big room”.

(I assume the perplexed Japanese are too polite to ask why so many westerners get jumpy when getting a big room.)

The bigger the room the longer the walls that call for something to display. And in order to make the obeya impressive, especially to visitors, lots of graphs, figures, tables, drawings, photos and maps must be displayed. So shall it be.

As a matter of fact, many companies display impressive walls clad of the previously mentioned printed material, plus sticky notes and hand colored symbols.

Well, many and most of the obeyas I’ve seen fail to turn to the war room where smart decisions are made to win the never ending battle against the empire of waste and its dreaded sneaky saboteurs named muda, mura and muri.

Getting closer to the display, it takes the outsider a while to find out the meaning of what is shown. I didn’t expect the pride about achievements to be that discreet, but it turns out, once the code for reading the charts has been broken, that the pride and achievement are still to come. Anytime soon suggests the presenter.

Not seldom are the prints totally outdated, and latest manual inputs (a place is left for them) missing. Key performance indicators graphs are plotted without any mention of unit nor indication of the target. Some data tables or audit sheets show the period between two events, confirming the lack of cadence.

Actions plans are anything but that. Fluffy wording is used to describe problems and even more fuzzy ones to describe the actions to take. The department in charge are mentioned together with a date (never know if it is the date the information is pushed to this department or the expected date of problem resolution), but nothing to track the actor’s acknowledgment, results nor to check off the action as successful.

The latest obeya with long walls full of complicated looking graphs and lots of other information turned out to be a kind of wall of shame, bluntly displaying and confirming what was happening on the nearby shopfloor. With time lag though.

Nevertheless, those obeyas just as the successful ones, set the scene for ritual meetings where the poor performances are “discussed” without many convincing decisions taken. My colleague describes those rooms as places where people shout at each other, standing.

Now, when I am invited to visit the Obeya, I expect to see visual management turned into useless wallpaper and the dedicated war room turned into a pathetic wallpaper showroom.

To end this post with a more optimistic tone, I assume I am only called to places in trouble and those working well simply do not need me.

Share your experience via comments!

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How Lean can help startups – Do not repeat mistakes of established companies 2/2

Entrepreneurs, at the beginning of a new venture, have limited means and therefore should be waste-aware in order not to spoil their so limited resources.

>Have you read part one?

Waste is a central Lean concept widely known and documented. Here is the minimum to know about waste:

Waste is consuming resources without value creation.

Taichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System, has codified the various types of waste. Himself and his team spend significant time on factory shopfloor to observe and understand how and where waste happens.

Waste comes in 3 major families: Mura, Muri and Muda. These, although originally observed in manufacturing, are generic and transferable to any industry or business.

Variability (Mura) produces unpredictable results, uncertainty and variation in quality and delivery. Variability may lead to redo or correct what has already be done, thus “costing the double”, especially when the first widget has to be scrapped or a file discarded, etc. The impact of variability are dissatisfaction and corrective actions inducing additional costs.

The unreasonable (Muri) is the use of inadequate and / or poorly dimensioned resources, which carry risks on quality, safety or health; having people lifting heavy loads, overloading a transportation cart… Other Muri are more impacting costs, like renting a large office when a small one is enough, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut…

“Operational” waste (Muda) were classified into 7 original types to which an eighth was added later:

  • Waste from overproduction
  • Waste from waiting times
  • Waste caused by transport
  • Wastage due to unnecessary inventories
  • Waste in processes (overprocessing)
  • Unnecessary human movements
  • Wastage due to defects / poor quality

and the eighth: waste of human talent

The bigger an organization, the more opportunities to create waste exist: people and processes work with poor coordination, which means waiting, piling up of Work In Progress (another word for inventory), working on wrong versions…

The bigger the organization the more transportation of physical goods between departments (parts, paperwork, material, documents…) and human motion (walking, handling..), handovers, etc.

The list of examples can go on endlessly. It was all experienced in established companies.

For more details about the Lean obsession about waste, I invite you to refer to the related post.

How can this help startups?

Being waste-aware will help prevent waste. Remember: especially at the beginning resources are scarce and should be used wisely.

It is a question of sound management as well as a showing respect to the prime investors trusting the wannabe company.

It is far easier to prevent waste than to fight to reduce it afterwards, another learning from established companies.

So for instance when planning a layout, it should be done in a way to minimize unnecessary motions, handling, transportation and so on.

To avoid overprocessing and overproduction, think about Minimum Viable Product: the demo widget does not have to be perfect nor to come in huge numbers.

When defining a product or service features, remember that “best is enemy of good”; the customers may not want to pay for all the fancy bells and whistles.

Create a culture of “right first time” to minimize quality issues and the burden of rework or redo.

Wraping up

Waste is burning resources without creating value. Some of these wastes are inevitable and should be minimized, others are avoidable and should be eradicated.

Wastes, their effects and ways to prevent them are widely known and documented, therefore entrepreneurs have interest in using the accumulated and shared experience in order to avoid repeating bad practices.

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What is a spaghetti diagram?

A spaghetti diagram, spaghetti plot or spaghetti chart is the drawing depicting the physical flow or route of:

  • a part, raw material in a workshop or factory
  • a human worker in his/her work environment
  • a patient in his/her journey in a hospital
  • nurses in their station
  • a file or paperwork being handed over across offices
  • etc.

The drawing of the journey will show how intricate the route is, looking like a plate of spaghetti, hence the name.

Spaghetti chart, what for?

Spaghetti (1)These charts are used to analyze the distance covered, the going back and forth to some place, the wasted time in motion and/or transportation (muda).

People are often unaware what distances they walk in a day and management is unaware of the time spent moving around the place wasting time and energy.

Spaghetti chart are useful to redesign a layout or reposition some equipment in order to reduce the unnecessary walking time and fatigue, which is only waste.

Sometimes it is the order of steps in a process that can be changed for the sake of efficiency.

A spaghetti diagram is a welcome sidekick to Value Stream Mapping, as the later maps the conceptual route through a process while the spaghetti chart shows the actual (or future) physical one.

How to draw a spaghetti chart?

Spaghetti charts depicting the actual situation should be based on real observation. On a prepared sheet with outlines of the facility, machines, equipment, etc. the observer traces the lines as the observed object/person moves from one spot to the next.

Tips and tricks

  • The drawing should be more or less on scale, so that it is easier to estimate the total distance covered.
  • If scale is unknown, count the steps when walking and estimate an average stride length. This will help estimate all the distances and the accumulated distance.
  • When the trail is going and coming forth, draw each line separately in order to count the frequency per time unit (e.g. per quarter, per hour, etc.). it will also help to estimate the total distance by multiplying the segment length with frequency.
  • Try to depict the route faithfully. Do not draw straight lines through walls as I saw once because my explanation was not specific enough!

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Goal Tree is a Lean tool

This post title may sound provocative to all readers knowing the Goal Tree origins lay with Theory of Constraints and to hardliners of each philosophy wanting to keep their toolbox clean of “imported” tools, yet it won’t change the fact that a Goal Tree is a Lean tool.

Goal Tree

Goal Tree

1. Goal Tree as its name tells is totally goal-focused

Starting with the Goal statement is totally in line with Jeffrey Liker’s first principle the 14 principles of The Toyota Way: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.

The Goal Tree sets a benchmark for the long-term in order to achieve the organization’s Goal or purpose. The Goal is by definition far away, otherwise it would rather be called an intermediate objective on the way to achieving the “real” Goal.

Once the Goal is stated, the Goal Tree describes all Necessary Conditions to achieving it, thus an explicit invitation to take all necessary management decisions. As the focus is on the Goal, the short-term goals are nothing else than Necessary Conditions or Intermediate Objectives and never a diversion to fetch a short-term opportunity.

2. Goal Tree’s necessity based logic filters out all nice-to-haves

A Goal Tree is built on a cascade of Necessary Conditions which are allowed into the Tree only if they comply to the necessity logic. The test is binary: if the condition responds positively to the condition “in order to have…[objective], we must have…[condition]”, than it passes the test. If the suggested idea does not respond to the test, it does not fit into the Tree.

This means that a robust Goal Tree is lean as it is built only on strictly Necessary Conditions and the required or available resources will therefore be used only for really necessary things!

Conversely, everything that would consume any resource without being strictly necessary (muda) is discarded, keeping the Tree lean.

3. Goal Tree trumps Hoshin Kanri

In my opinion, Goal Tree “trumps” Hoshin Kanri when it comes to list all the necessary breakthroughs to achieve mid to long-term objectives.

The reason is the same as above: the necessity logic that guides the analysis of what is required vs. what we have, hence the gaps that must be filled with breakthroughs.

Hoshin Kanri is too open and to pervious to nice-to-haves as it intrinsically lacks the filter to keep them out, the necessity logic.

Yet to be fair, Hoshin Kanri does better than Goal Tree in later steps, when the breakthroughs must be broken down into short-term objectives with proper KPIs and resources allocation. While Hoshin Kanri does it all within the same X matrix, the Goal Tree needs other logical trees or action plans to do it.

Hoshin Kanri X matrix

Hoshin Kanri X matrix

This is why I like to combine both: start the analysis of what gaps to fill with the Goal Tree and then feed findings into a Hoshin Kanri.

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About the author

About the author

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VSM start on (false) assumption


Chris HOHMANN – Author

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a great tool, that got really popular and stands as a one of the icons of Lean.

In a nutshell, Value Stream Mapping is the schematic description of physical and information flow of a process or a value chain. It helps understanding the current situation and analyzing the causes of issues and limitations. VSM is followed by a design of the desired future state, called Value Stream Design (VSD). The third implicit part of a VSM-VSD is the action plan, made of the necessary actions for changing from current situation to the desired future state.

VSM is therefore an excellent trigger for continuous improvement and used as such in Lean initiatives.

What lean enthusiasts using VSM look for is a smooth, fast and direct flow from customers’ needs or desires to customers satisfaction, using only the very necessary resources. This requires the process supporting the flow to be as free of wastes as possible.

Wastes mean Muri, Muda and Mura, more about this >here<

It seems reasonable then to (re)visit the process and hunt down any waste in order to improve the flow.

Doing so is making an assumption, mostly unspoken and even unconscious, that the actual process is really useful and needs/deserves improvement.

Yet most of the lean enthusiast take a shortcut on the scientific thinking promoted by Lean, jumping too fast on Doing (read Mapping in this case) without giving enough time, if any, on Planning.

The Plan phase of the PDCA is meant to pose a hypothesis and to design an experiment carried out during the Do phase and assessed for validation or invalidation in the Check phase.

It therefore happens, more often than believed, that an unnecessary process gets attention, time and resources allocated for improvement when what was is really needed is simply to get rid of the whole process!

How can a process be useless?

It is common to setup a process in order to overcome a problem and literally forget to remove it once the problem is solved. Many processes are cluttered with sub-processes and procedures once created to bypass or overcome a problem that remain in place, consuming resources for absolutely no value creation.

In order to avoid such kind of embarrassing creation of muda (Value Stream Mapping an unnecessary process), each process candidate for a VSM should first be analysed for its purpose: what is the goal of this process? what problem this process is supposed to solve?

If there is no good reason for the process to exist, no need to map it, go for discarding it. (Note: good reasons may include “mandatory by regulation”)

For another variation on this subject, you may like to read VSM Pitfall: unnecessary process

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Muda, Muri, Mura

Subtle variations about waste.

Some Japanese words have made their way into the western business language since Lean spread worldwide and inspired all businesses. Three of them are quite well known: Muda, Muri, Mura.


Muda is one of the Japanese words passed in the common language of industry. Muda stands as generic word for any and all of the infamous seven types of waste:

  • Waste from overproduction
  • Wastes from wait times
  • Waste caused by transportation
  • Wastage due to unnecessary inventories
  • Waste in the manufacturing process
  • Unnecessary movements
  • Wastage due to defective parts

These seven types of wastes were commonly observed in industrial workshops and proved pretty generic to many other activities, even in administration and services (with a little adaptation).

A later eighth type was identified and now commonly admitted in the list: the waste of human talent(s).

Muda are not the sole type of waste, but they are the most easy to understand and relatively easy to identify by observation. “Muda hunting” has become a regular activity, sometimes even popular activity in some companies.


Muri means unreasonableness, like the use of oversized or excessive means relative to the need or the desired result. Muri can be obvious, like hauling a small light box with a big truck or conversely overloading a smaller truck with large/heavy load.

Other muri may be more subtle like immobilizing large capacity pallet boxes for storing some small lightweight components when the need for storage could be solved with cheaper and easier to handle smaller boxes.

Muri is also about the physical overload, the hardship, exposure to mental stress, which lead to wasting energy, health and ultimately human capital.

Special attention should be paid when working postures include arm extension or leaning forward with the bust, back bent, leaning the head, torso rotations, squat, etc. Repeatedly pushing or pulling strongly, lifting heavy weights, using the fist as a hammer, and so on.

MURA, irregular, variability

Variability can take multiple aspects; different bottle filling levels in a filling line, varying cutting length, or inconsistent color tones in successive batches, etc.

The physical characteristics of a raw material may vary over time or according to different batches supplied; quantity, weight, length, texture, hardness, elasticity, etc. The settings of a machine may vary over time, human practices and actions may vary from one person to another and over one day.

The sources of variability are innumerable and variability generate waste as some of the output must be reworked or even discarded.

Variation in production rhythm often lead to install buffer stocks to smooth irregular flows. Note that acceptance of buffer stocks means creating MURI and MUDA. The Japanese approach seeks to eliminate the causes of irregularities and not hide them with buffers.

By gradually decreasing the size of buffer stocks, causes of irregularities are revealed and it is possible to eliminate / reduce them. The basic idea is that every workflow must flow smoothly like a river. If obstacles are disturbing its course, remove the obstacles, do not add water.

Summing up

Waste come in three major forms; Mura, Muri and Muda, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other. Indeed, some wastage look like one of the seven types of Muda but could be considered a form of Mura (variability) as well. Others lead to discuss their essence is rather Muri (excess) or Muda, and so on.

Just accept that there are not always clear boundaries between them and it is a mere waste of time to discuss how to consider them.

Lean is relentless about removing waste, which is a way to solve problems and improve processes, not waste hunting per se.


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How lean are you? Part 6 – Gemba walk as lean assessment

Measuring leanness is not always necessary, for instance when gathering qualitative clues is good enough for the purpose of the assessment. This would be the case for qualifying a supplier or find improvement topics.

Part 1 to part 4 of this series describe quantitative leanness assessment

Gemba walk as qualifying audit

When it comes to select and qualify a supplier in a list of candidates, before awarding him/her a contract over several years and develop a real partnership, it is wise to pay a visit to the facilities and assess the candidate’s performance and abilities.

Many such qualifying processes start with a standard questionnaire designed to gather some basic information. Many of these inquiries include questions about improvement programs, past lean initiatives and planned projects.

Some KPIs are also required in order to get an idea about the actual performance level and remaining improvement potential, which is a hint about actual risks for the customer as well as hint for future discounts as “shared improvement benefits”.

Yet figures can be misleading if it is not possible to differentiate effectiveness from efficiency or simply because all candidates want to appear at their best and dress their window accordingly.

In order to cross-check provided information, a gemba walk is a good tool. Such a walk would first check if the customer’s representative can walk the supplier’s talk or said simply: does the reality match the alleged situation, is the supplier trustworthy?

It doesn’t take lot of data to do this. Lean and non-lean situation are often highly contrasted, so evidences in both cases are easy to find.

As the outcome is a binary answer about confidence in the actual performance and potentials of the supplier, a lean expert word after a gemba walk is enough.


If supplier claims to pay keenest attention to quality but the shop floor is messy, dirty, with material and parts staked everywhere, the quality of delivered goods may be the result of thorough checking and filtering and come at high cost and not as a result of efficient and standard processes.

This exposes the customer to some risk regarding product’s quality, delivery – in quantity and time – as well as supplier’s potential bankruptcy in severe cases (his margin annihilated by excessive costs).

If changeover time is long and obviously SMED approach and techniques not known or mastered, flexibility can’t be good.

In case of shared resources with limited sprint capacity, it is likely that customers’ priority changes – something all B2B customers allow themselves – will disrupt the planning and lead to chaotic handling.

The deliveries would be at jeopardy and it is common that the customer shouting loudest will be given highest priority.

This means a lot of efforts for a given customer to secure his supplies. A kind of risk no auditor takes lightly.

Yet on a questionnaire alone, this kind of problem can seldom be foreseen.

Touring the shop floor reveals a lot about the company’s culture:

  • Do people look anxious and in haste or do they work smoothly and efficiently?
  • Do they wear required protections? Do they work in a well-tended, clean and well-lit environment?
  • Do they pay attention to material, parts, tools and equipment?
  • Is garbage visible somewhere?

Many of these kind of questions address discipline, morale, management and employee’s engagement.

These soft facts may influence the company’s performance and can only be sensed in situ.


Assessing leanness most often does not require complex measurement and ranking tools, a gemba walk by an expert is enough to give a grading and make a decision in an audit.

About me

Why this lean obsession about waste?


Chris HOHMANN – Author

Lean is about waste. Mainly about waste. Obsessive about waste.

Wastes are activities that carry costs without adding any value. Reducing wastes is turning these expenses into savings.

So far so good. Yet why doesn’t lean emphasize adding value instead?

Adding value means adding or improving something that customers will value and will be ready to pay for. It’s a real challenge because if such improvement or enrichment misses to convince the customers, the whole initiative is a waste. Adding value requires some ability to pick up the voice of customer and to design accordingly. This is a field devoted to marketing, design or R&D and their specialists.

Lean found its origins in Toyota’s workshops, where workers, techies and engineers had few if any opportunities to contribute to really add value. What they had plenty: wastes.

That’s probably the reason why Lean practitioners concentrated on wastes and keep doing so. Furthermore, wastes are everywhere and waste elimination can be challenged by everybody.

Seeing only the tip of the iceberg

Strangely, if waste is everywhere, waste hunters sometimes miss to find them. In production / manufacturing, people often tend to improve what is already nearly optimum. Usually, value-added operations are already optimized, as they are long identified as critical to performance:

  • Cycle time
  • Yield
  • Man power
  • Scrap
  • etc.

Non value-adding operations keep being ignored even so they represent the biggest share. Only 1 or 2 % of the time a part spends in a workshop is used to add value as shown in this example of a mechanical part.

It took a total of 25 days for this part to complete its journey through the workshop, while being transformed or treated only a few minutes (0,2 day x 8 hours = approx 1,5 hour) in 14 different operations. It was picked up, moved and put down 84 times and traveled nearly 2km within the workshop, altogether with its sister parts in the same crate.

Aiming at the right target

The following scene shows a customer looking for fast served hot coffee. The whole process is made of coffee brewing followed by the delivery to customer.

The latter isn’t satisfied about performance, he’s waiting too long. As this complaint is common, management urges ops to improve the process.

Engineers look at the process and come up with a breakthrough solution; adding a turbocharger to the brewer, allowing the coffee to be ready for service in a tenth of usual time.

Despite this tremendous improvement, customers still aren’t happy with waiting time.

Management is furious about the investment, much too expensive for this result. Engineers are admonished to improve with cheaper means.

At least one of them remembers that transportation is a waste to be challenged, so they try low cost automation, providing waiters with rollers in order to minimize the duration of transportation. Alas this solution is not stable, many waiters fail to master the new process. The disruptions in service don’t help to increase customer satisfaction.

Seeing that engineers keep being irresistibly attracted by technological solutions, senior management fears another blunder with a time-warp machine or something of sorts and eventually hires an organization consultant.

The ultimate solution is as simple as reducing the waste itself by bringing production closer to consumption.


Opportunities for eliminating waste are far more numerous than opportunities to add value. Furthermore, anyone can reduce waste with little risk to make mistakes, while adding value is a matter for specialists. Value adding sometimes fails.