The Normalcy Of Waste


By Dan Markovitz

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed George David, the CEO of United Technologies. Though the conversation didn't address his views on lean, he decries all forms of waste:

You can't walk through life with a trained eye and not see the opportunities for productivity. Every time you sit in traffic, that's a productivity loss. Every time you go to the doctor and fill out a bunch of forms and he refers you to somebody else and you fill out the same forms all over again, that's a loss of productivity. Whenever you wait for something, that's waste. I believe you can have 10 times more. I really do. . . . Just look at the differences in personal productivity between people, educated versus not educated. Or people in good, really productive labor environments, versus people who are kind of struggling because they're in disorganized or ineffective companies.

Tim Walker, in his “What I've Learned So Far” blog, has an interesting comment on the WSJ interview:

The truth is, an abundance of cheap energy over the past century, while enabling huge strides in technology, global travel, and trade, has also instilled an ethic of waste in many of us. It has become incredibly easy and cheap — relative to the prior course of human history — to make more things, to ship them quickly, and then to whisk away the leavings. It has been incredibly easy to leave the lights on, and to build in pockets of waste in our systems, simply out of habit, or for want of better forethought. It has become normal to waste.

Tim is not a lean evangelist, as far as I know. Nor, presumably, does he know about the origins of the Toyota Production System. But his comment points to Toyota's resource-poor origins. In the post-WWII era, the company couldn't afford to leave the lights on, much less stockpile inventory. (Even now, of course, the company still makes a habit of turning off the lights. Waste is waste, even if you're rich.) Financial constraints forced Toyota to unearth the pockets of waste in its production system.

Tim's notion of the “normalcy of waste” applies to our own individual work processes as well, and not just the systems in which we work. To poach Tim's phrasing, it's incredibly easy to store gigabytes of data, and as a result we don't discipline ourselves to apply 5S principles to the information we manage. It's incredibly easy to fill co-workers' email inboxes with low-value or no-value junk, so we don't focus our work-related communication on truly important issues – and as a result, we have to slog through dozens or hundreds of crap messages that suck up our time during the day. It's incredibly easy to take work home with us, so we don't develop an aversion to wasting time during the day. (Except right before our big vacation to Maui. Then we're totally focused on our work, and we eliminate all the waste that might keep us from catching the plane.)

In a recent post at Evolving Excellence, Kevin Meyer also touched on this idea, that having more — more space, more machines, more capacity, etc. — leads to inefficiency. Which brings us right back to Toyota in 1946, when the company didn't have more of anything.

We may be living in an age of abundance, but the one thing that remains scarce is time. No matter how much you try to improve your “time management,” five minutes will not become six, and 24 hours will not become 25. So you have to use it as efficiently as possible. Each moment should be delivering value — to the company, to your family, to your community, to yourself. Anything else is waste.

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Dan Markovitz
Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.


  1. It’s funny, I was thinking similarly. I had read the Evolving Excellence post about food . The article talked about how other attempts at this concept have failed because Americans want “value” in thier food.

    I think he got it right with the value=volume concept, which is also the more for less concept. The same kind of reasoning is behind the “but it was $xxx off, I had to buy it!”

    I have always had a hard time understanding that – you bought a $400 something just because it was 50% off? You still spent $200. Unless that something you were ready and willing to pay $400 for, why did you buy it? But we seem to use that logic a lot in our business.

    So is this value stream thinking for my personal finances? :) If the product was valuable enough for me to pay $400 for, then getting it for 50% was a real savings. If it was something that had no value to me, you could offer it to me free and I would refuse it.

    My assesment of valuation is much larger than any particular thing you’re presenting me. I’m evaluating that thing against my lifestyle, my home, heck, even my morals (I’ll pass on the stuffed kangaroo nightstand/lamp post combo, thanks!) I’m looking to see if it *fits*.

    I’m starting to think we accept so much waste because we’ve been trained not to think about fit. It seems like our quest to get things cheaper and cheaper means we’ve had to accept things that don’t fit well. Buildings that aren’t comfortable and healthy, food that isn’t healthy, clothing that fits terribly (when was the last time you bought a T shirt that had seams which line up with any line on your body?).

    Yes, I’m applying my own valuation to these things. I have an underlying assumption that food should be healthy and seams should follow the lines of the body. I bet everyone has some of these assumptions if they think about it. And yet how many products are designed/produced to meet those expectations?

    So is this the shift from making something then finding a customer to finding a customer and making something for them?

    Still lots of thinking to do here. :)

  2. Andrea,

    Interesting questions. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with “making something and then finding a customer.” Any company that has created a new product does precisely that: how many customers were there for the first desktop computer? For the first automobile? For the first television?

    I think waste really comes from the idea of more for less. When we can get more for less, and when the cost of the “more” is zero, why not get/buy/use it?

    Kevin’s point about the value = volume only holds true when there’s no cost to the customer for the extra volume. I’m a pretty big eater, and I cook pretty big meals . . . except when I go backpacking. Then I strictly ration the amount of food I carry and prepare, because the waste is costly: it’s heavy to carry, and it’s hard to dispose of (unless you like bears hanging around the campsite).

  3. Dan — Thanks for your thoughts on my own post, and for elaborating on them in terms of resource constraints. For more on how contraints can drive creativity, see the archive of Kathy Sierra’s “Creating Passionate Users” blog*, especially this post. (Look for the links under the heading “Time Constraints”.)

    One of Kathy’s commenters also said something once that connected software-programming constraints with the OuLiPo-style contraints embraced by literary experimentalists such as Georges Perec. That offers food for thought about how your observations here go so far beyond manufacturing or the way we organize our work days – which tends to reinforce the idea that you’re onto something major.

    Cheers, TW

    (*Sadly, Kathy’s blog is currently in hibernation. But the archives are a gold mine.)


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