The Tragedy of Waste

By Luke Van Dongen

I was very fortunate to have met Bob Emiliani at the Linking Lean Thinking to Education conference in Worcester Mass last month. Bob has a wonderful combination of industry and academic experience and has several publications to his credit. His latest article, “The Tragedy of Waste” was just published on Superfactory.com this evening.

The article is based on a book of the same title written by Stuart Chase in 1925. Bob shared a draft of the article with me and was generous enough to answer some questions from the article to post here on the Lean Blog. Here are those questions and Emiliani’s responses:

Tragedy of Waste Q&A
1. What prompted you to begin your study of industrial management and engineering texts between 1910 and 1930? Was it pure curiosity or did something lead you to want to look back?

I have been interested in the history of Toyota and their management system for some time, and several years ago I began collecting the dozen or so out-of-print books written by former Toyota executives. I decided to go further backwards in
time to better understand how the people who followed Frederick Winslow Taylor comprehended, systematized, and expanded upon his ideas.

Taylor’s “Scientific Management” soon turned into “efficiency engineering,” which then evolved into “industrial engineering.” This lineage directly connects to Toyota’s production system, as well as to its overall management system. It is very useful to learn what people at that time understood about waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness, its impact on the company and country, and the principles, processes, and tools they used to eliminate these losses.

2. In many of the quotes you selected to include in your article from the book, Chase refers to disciplines such as psychology, economics and sociology, in addition to engineering, as important in the pursuit of waste elimination. How do you view these relative to the pursuit of Lean management today?

Chase knew what he was talking about, and was correct to identify functioning, as well as broken, interconnections between these four knowledge areas, depending upon whether waste elimination was being pursued or not. Based upon my 12+ years of study of Toyota’s management system, these knowledge areas are indeed interconnected and they strongly influenced the evolution of TPS. Clear evidence of this can be found in “The Toyota Way 2001” document, which describes Toyota’s “fundamental DNA.”

Knowledge of the interconnections is very important because it affects how we comprehend and practice Lean management. Ignorance of the interconnections is common today and leads to poor comprehension of Lean management, which typically results in the practice of “Fake Lean.”

3. I found it striking that Chase readily recognized the existence of waste outside of the factory. Aside from Chase’s examples, such as milk delivery in Rochester, New York, are there any lessons from the past that might be valuable to people working today to implement Lean in service and other settings?

Taylor and his successors were all well aware of the applicability of Scientific Management to any type of organization or activity. Then, like now, the principal focus was the factory because the improvements made there had a big positive impact that everyone could see. Then, as now, it was thought that making a big positive impact would deliver legions of converts, from associates to the CEO. Well, we know from our own experience what other people learned a long time ago: making a big impact does not yield many converts. I’ll soon write an article that highlights the actions taken by a 1900’s-era efficiency engineering consultant to gain top management buy-in. It will be very enlightening.

In general, the lessons from the past are the same as the lessons of today, whether in manufacturing or service businesses: take a scientific approach to understanding problems and applying countermeasures. That is: observe, gather data, make fact-based decisions, simplify processes, do root cause analysis, establish standard work, use visual controls, balance loads, be persistent, lead the organization in the least-waste-way (in terms of leadership behaviours), etc.

4. Do you think Chase’s concept of a “functional society” as it applies to a standard for measuring waste holds validity today?

To some extent it does, because a “functional society” is concerned about making ends meet as a society, with a little left over, which most people recognize as beneficial in an individual or family setting. Chase said that waste should not be measured in dollars, but in units of measure such as pounds, feet, time, etc. It is good advice that many people ignore to this day, and instead seek to attach a dollar figures to every kaizen.

Measuring in dollars means people at all levels of an organization will not learn to see and figure out how to eliminate the less obvious forms of waste (and unevenness and unreasonableness). Importantly, they will not learn a fundamental skill of Lean
management, which is the constant interplay between “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People.” Orry Fiume, retired CFO of the Wiremold Company,
recognized this. He has long said: “Don’t bean count Lean.” It is free advice, worth millions and millions and millions of dollars.

5. You bring forth many concepts from Chase in your article, and relate these to modern terms for similar perhaps more evolved concepts used today such as Lean consumption. Did you come across anything in your research from the past that has not yet been translated into the present?

I think the fact that Chase and others had conceived the outline of what we today call “Lean consumption” is very interesting. It is one of many, many examples which illustrates that great ideas are often not as new as we think they are. One thing Chase talked about that is re-emerging is the linkage between economics and psychology, which today is called “behavioural economics.” For the last 50 years or so, this linkage has been weak or non-existent in economics research and education, and likely explains, at least in part, why Lean remains out of the mainstream of management education and practice today.

6. You clearly identify political thinking and trends as interdependent factors that have in the past, and possibly continue today, to hinder the widespread adoption of Lean management. In your view, is a “Lean mindset” analogous to a “left-of-center” political characterization today? If so, is this a condition that must be overcome for Lean management to truly take hold?

It is possible that the “left-of-center” characterization could still be with us today, 81 years after Chase’s book was published, though perhaps more on a subconscious level. However, I personally do not view the Lean mindset as “left-of-center.” Lean embraces so much common sense thinking, rooted in observation and confronting facts and reality, that it transcends, or should transcend, political characterization. I touched upon this point in a recent article on Lean government (see this link).

If the “left-of-center” characterization does prevent Lean management from taking hold today, it would be only one of many causes that lead to the effect we see. For example, the industrial engineering books from 1910-1930, as well leadership books from the same period, reveal that corporate executives often ignored modern management ideas and methods. The authors identified many different causes, though not in a systematic manner. The problem of how to get senior management’s attention, and their commitment and steady participation, long-term, is not new.

It could turn out that the political characterization is a very important factor. Perhaps economic theory over the last 50 years plays a larger role, or maybe the effect is driven by our current conception of the purpose of the corporation (e.g. shareholder supremacy vs. stakeholder balance). All of these causes are interrelated and also linked to psychology, social constructs, and business decision-making. Importantly, the strength of their influence upon senior managers depends upon the times in which they live. It is not difficult to identify causal factors linked to contemporary corporate, economic, or political theories which could be seen as inconsistent, in small or large ways, with the Lean management principles “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People.”

In an upcoming article, “Too Much Selfish Thinking,” I examine how a related yet more fundamental factor – selfishness – may significantly limit wider adoption of Lean management by senior managers.

Bob Emiliani is a faculty member in the School of Technology at Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn. He is also the president of The Center for Lean Business Management, LLC.

Please check out my main blog page at www.leanblog.org

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Luke Van Dongen

Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.

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