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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: the Way of Waste Elimination (ie: waste elimination as a heuristic)

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Clearly, there is more to lean than waste elimination. And then again, maybe waste elimination IS the whole point.

Let me go out on a limb here. Why would a french sociologist consider Toyota to be a role model? I was all set to follow the traditional path of critical analysis and join the club of naysayers. So: what changed my mind? It’s not like it’s an ideal company. it’s not even as if it’s a radical new organizational design. What it does have is an orginal intent: a project to be better than it is, all the way down to team member level. An aspiration.

Firstly, at the risk of sounding old fashioned, the project of “contributing to society by making things” sounds like a worthwhile project in a society essentially build upon its technical objects. Secondly, the next step of “making people to make things” puts forward the hope of an economic system in which people matter.

Waste is the number one drawback of making things: waste for the customers when things don’t deliver the promised usage, waste in resources through poor design  and manufacturing , waste in using people’s labor, waste in creating organizations that, well, waste time and effort constantly (reporting? value added? really). So although I don’t doubt that many things not directly adding value to the customers are necessary, that some are even worthwhile, using waste = non value added as a heuristic, as a frame, is generally sobering. When the finger points at the moon, it’s the moon we should look at, not the finger. In this case, the moon, to me is a waste-free or waste-minimal world. We’ll never get there and nothing will ever be waste-free (that’s partly the point), but I still believe that a world with the Prius in it is a step forward from a world with vague plans to create the totally electric car, but no practical way to get there.

Secondly, at to me, that’s the magic of lean, waste elimination is not a end in itself (well, not just an end) but a means to developping people’s thinking. It’s by focusing on the waste we create as professionals that one unlocks the power of kaizen. When I work with engineers in the design process and we start discussing the waste a technical solution triggers: for the customers first, when the product doesn’t work, or isn’t convenient, or the plastic packaging of the inkjet cartidge  drives you nuts; second waste in resources when the design uses more material than needed, when it requires one more supplier, with one more step in the supply chain and all the transport and inventory and hassle associated iwth it. Thirdly, waste in the manufacturing process itself, with all the unnecessary operations involved; Fourthly, waste in the organization of the project or the company itself. By understanding these wastes in detail, by seeing exactly how we generate them, we can learn to do thigs differently and reduce the waste we ourselves create by our misconceptions, misunderstandings, misgivings, misfortunes.

One thing I’ve learned repeatedly is that lean is a practice, not a theory, so for exact definitions of lean, truth, and beauty, the philosophy class is next door. For shop floor rats who are tryignt o get through the day by contributing to society through manufacture, reducing the amount of waste in terms of non-value added to the customer is partial, certainly, but challenging enough as it is. And using waste elimination not just as a target, but as a process to learn about how we work and come up with innovative solutions by thnking deeply about how to limit the waste we creat ourselves, is good enough for me.

Let’s go back to the shop floor. Let’s reveal our own mistakes and ask why? Let’s visualize overproduction and ask why? Let’s challenge the use of headcount and people’s time and ask why? And then try something different and see whether its less wasteful. Unsatisfactory answer? No doubt, but it’ll keep use busy and out of mischief for a while yet.

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