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Lessons from the Road: Eliminating Waste in Your Personal Work

June 3, 2013
Some studies have found that the average person has two to six hours of waste for every eight hours they are at work.

How many of you leave your work feeling like none of your day was a waste? Very few, I suspect. Some studies have found that the average person has two to six hours of waste for every eight hours they are at work. Most waste elimination is focused on organizational waste; we sometimes forget to improve ourselves. 

See Also: Operations Management Strategy & Best Practices

How do you eliminate waste for yourself? 

1. Define your own ideal state. Just like the customer defines value and therefore waste for the organization, your own ideal state can help define your personal waste. One hotel general manager defined her ideal state as "never to have to talk to a guest again." 

While that doesn't sound like a good ideal state for the guest business, for her it was perfect. Guest conversations were only an escalation of problems. Her new customer was her staff, and her new definition of value was making processes work for them every time. And waste was anything that wasn't helping her serve that end. 

2. Assess your current state. You then need to identify the waste in your own work. The seven wastes of lean still provide a lens and a language to identify waste in your own work. Ask yourself these questions:

Transportation: How many handoffs do I have in my work? Inventory: How big is my queue of work tasks? Motion: How much time do I spend searching for information? Waiting: Does my work sit idle waiting for other tasks or information? Overproduction: Do I perform some tasks long before they are needed, while other tasks are late? Overprocessing: Do I do more than is necessary, such as three-paragraph emails where one sentence will suffice? Defects: Do I have tasks I must rework? 

Keep a list of what you are looking for, and make notes when you observe those specific instances. Identify the cause of that waste. You aren't going to eliminate everything, and certainly not all at once. But if you have multiple observations, you can make choices about the best opportunity to improve. 

3. Develop specific solutions for specific waste instances. Don't try to eliminate waste in broad themes. 

One executive noticed the waste from frequent requests for small bits of information. Each one was a status update or small change in direction. Working with his team, he established a visual management system and had 15-minute daily meetings over the board to talk about status and priorities. Most anything that required small bits of information was handled in this one compact meeting. As a result, his email traffic was reduced by 80%, a significant reduction in waste. 

A purchasing manager had a large number of reports that he generated and shared with the organization. He didn't know if he was providing value or not. He went to ask each of the recipients what value the reports provided. He found out that the answer was "very little.” Half of his reports disappeared entirely, and the other half he restructured to deliver the value desired by the recipients.

4. Make the improvements systemic. Once waste is eliminated, it tends to creep back in. Unless you build your own personal systems to keep the waste out, you are swimming upstream. 

Building standard work for yourself can assure that your week is spent on the most valuable tasks. Measure how many days you take to complete your top priorities. This is a good indicator that you are eliminating waste and providing value. It's a simple indicator, and it tells you if changes are necessary. 

For the earlier example about reports, instead of one isolated conversation you could make it systematic. One training manager we worked with visited his internal customers every quarter. He asked them, "On a scale of one to five, how am I doing at providing value to you?” Every quarter, he was able to reassess his own performance. 

One of the most common complaints I hear is that we don't have enough time to improve. If you eliminate waste from your own work, that time saved can be reinvested in improvement over and over.

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.” To read more of his articles, visit

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