When I ask people to define lean, as often as not the definition centers on waste. But lean isn’t all about waste. It is more about building organizations than trimming them. A popular definition is “do more with less.” Ask anyone what they hear when you say that, and they will tell you the words “with less” stand out the most. I’ve seen organizations cut their way to survival, and I’ve helped them do it. But I’ve never seen an organization cut their way to prosperity.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

My perspective is that the words “do more” are what’s core to lean: more value for the customer, more capacity to deliver that value and more capability in the organization. It’s not about less fat; it’s about more muscle. That’s how you build an organization capable of controlling its own destiny.

Waste elimination still has tremendous value, though, and should drive actions. Here are some tips to get the most out of waste elimination.

1. Make sure waste is converted into value. Do you ever clean all the junk out of the kitchen “junk drawer” only to find it filled up again a month later with different junk? This is what happens to open space if you don’t have a plan. If you decided to put your forks and knives in that drawer, it wouldn’t fill up with junk, because it now had a purpose.

 What would happen if you eliminated two hours of waste from your workweek? Most likely, you would get more email done. Does that really contribute what you want? You would be more likely to convert that time into value if you had a plan and a purpose.

One semiconductor company eliminated some wasteful time and freed up three to four hours per person. They put a weekly block of time on everyone’s schedule dedicated to point-of-activity problem solving. No meetings could be scheduled, and you shouldn’t be doing email. Go solve a problem.

2. Use the language as a lens. A big deal is made of the seven types of waste, at least it is in the classroom. But it’s not just for the classroom; it’s for everyday use. It’s a language to talk about waste, and it’s a lens to see waste.

I prefer the mnemonic TIMWOOD for the wastes of transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, overproduction and defects. If you find that different language works better for you, then use it. Many people have tried to integrate an eighth type of waste: wasted human potential. There’s no question that this is a terrible waste and that it’s real. But I find organizations focused on this eighth waste actually spend very little time going to look for waste. If they did, they would realize that this eighth waste is a general reality and not a specific observable condition.

The language of the wastes is useful specifically because it helps us observe waste. The more finely tuned our language and understanding, the more finely tuned our power of identifying the waste as it occurs.

3. Have a system… any system. We teach “systematic” waste elimination. One of the keys to this is that you need a system. A favorite question I ask when doing an assessment is “if you identify waste, what do you do?” Most people begin with a bit of hem and haw, and eventually conclude that they don’t do much. They either raise a big stink over the found waste, or they put up with it. This tells you there is no real mechanism, no real system, to help people get through a process of eliminating waste.

It doesn’t matter if the system is putting a flip chart in a corner and writing down waste as you experience it or if you have a sophisticated online documentation system such as the online tool KaiNexus [disclosure: I’m an advisor there]. But you need a system.

Waste elimination is not the heart of lean, but it can be powerfully effective. Just be sure that you’re eliminating waste with a purpose.


Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.”