How “Waste” is Like Osama Bin Laden


A few days ago, as I was glued to the coverage of Osama Bin Laden's death and the implications around the world, I was also writing a draft of an article about “waste” and Lean healthcare for a magazine… thoughts got somewhat intertwined and I had a few ideas about how the hunt for Bin Laden was like our hunt for waste in the workplace.

Three main points:

    • Waste is often hiding in plain sight
    • Waste often seems painfully obvious once it has been pointed out
    • Leaders often deny that they knew the waste was there the whole time

Osama Bin Laden wasn't hiding in a cave, he was in a populated town in a compound that should have been hard to miss. I think anybody who has worked with Lean knows that waste is often hard to see until we learn to look with new eyes – our Lean training and experience gained through gemba time and process observation teaches us to be more attuned to waste. Waste is often disguised as activity, motion, and hard work. Through Lean, we learn to view these workarounds and “extra efforts” as waste – something to be reduced rather than being glorified and rewarded. Waste is often right in our faces, but we don't see it.

I've seen many cases where an expert comes in and points out waste… it suddenly becomes obvious to the people working in the area. It's a common reaction that they then feel BAD that the waste was there all along. They beat themselves up for not having discovered it and they are embarrassed that the waste was there (much as Pakistanis might be embarrassed that Bin Laden was living 1000 yards from a military training school). In the workplace, I always emphasize that we shouldn't blame people for the waste that's there – what's important is working together to eliminate that waste, focusing on improvement over blame.

In the case of Bin Laden, there are accusations that the Pakistani intelligence organization and political leaders MUST haven known Bin Laden was there, but we can't know that for sure. In some workplaces, there's truly a blind spot for waste and, in some workplaces, leaders are just in denial that it's there. As in the real world, organizational politics can get complicated in terms of reasons why leaders wouldn't speak up. It's often that “fear of looking bad” that keeps people from speaking up. The “no problems is a problem” story from Toyota is helpful, in this regard.

Thanks and gratitude go to those who serve bravely and honorably in the U.S. military, including the team that got Bin Laden. See this link for more information on the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that supports injured service members and their families.

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1 Comment
  1. Brandt Smith says

    I see this all the time. Many of the then energy saving recommendations I make are common sense, and they are things that would be obvious it the company looked at their own energy use.

    That being said, I think the fact that I’m a consultant – an outsider – makes it easier to see what needs changed. The owner (or manager) is busy running his business and doesn’t have time to do a complete study.

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