How to hunt down waste

Eliminating waste is at the heart of Lean Thinking.

Anything that doesn’t add value for the customer is waste. Some of it we can eliminate, some we need to work to minimise.

I like to use the mnemonic TIM WOODS to help people remember the 8 types of waste. Partly because it is kinda fun to talk about hunting down this guy Tim Woods and eliminating him, Jacky Chan style.

But how do you find the waste in the first place?

As you work on improvement projects you will naturally start to uncover waste: you will identify parts of the process that do not add value; you will see delays and periods of waiting; and you will notice rejects and rework.

This is all brilliant, but can take a lot of time.

What if you want to kickstart activity to reduce waste? What if you want to start to involve more people and shift the mindset of the organisation so that everyone starts to see waste clearly?

Because it is all there, right in front of us – it’s just hard to see the (Tim) Woods for the trees.

(See what I did there 😊)

The longer we work somewhere, the harder it can be to see it.

I think the best way to find the waste is by taking a Waste Walk.

A Waste walk is a structured activity where a group of people, ideally 3 to 5, walk a process and specifically focus on looking for waste.

When I first talk about this to people, sometimes they look at me as if I am mad.

‘But I already walk my process every day! Multiple times! I know that process inside out! Why would that help me see waste?’

Well something special happens when you go purposefully, with the specific intent of looking for waste.

You start to see things that you have walked past a hundred times.

You start to understand the process even better.

You also, if you engage the right people in the walk, talk to the people who work in the process every day, and I’d be willing to bet they can tell you some wasteful aspects of their role that you don’t even know about.

So, my top tips for undertaking a waste walk:

(Note a Waste Walk is not just for a manufacturing environment. This works just as well in an office environment with paper based or digital processes. For processes completed on screen in a system, it can be really successful done remotely by screen sharing and asking someone to ‘walk’ you through their process.)

Tip #1 BE PREPARED

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I’d recommend using a pre-prepared template to record any waste you find. You can download my version here.

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Some of the wastes will be easy to find. You’ll likely quickly find examples of defects – rework or quality problems – but might find it harder to find examples of over production or (underutilised) skills.

For this reason I recommend you challenge the team undertaking the walk to find at least one example of every type of waste. This focuses their attention and makes them think deeply about what they are seeing.

Also, always take a clipboard and a camera. The clipboard makes it far easier to write on the template and the camera allows you to take photos or video of the wastes you find.

In terms of who should go on the walk – I’d suggest a small group, ideally 3-5 people. They should all have a vested interest in the process and at least one person should be in a position to make decisions.

This is important. The only time I have ever seen a Waste Walk fail is when the team of people looking for waste are not in a position to actually do anything about it. They have to go and report their findings to their superior, who wasn’t there, so doesn’t get it, and does not buy in to the importance. That team then gets thoroughly demotivated and thinks a waste walk is an enormous waste of time (and yes they did notice the irony).

Tip #2 EXPLAIN WHY

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When you go to an area – be it a production line, a warehouse, an office, a workshop, or wherever – the worst thing to do would be to descend en masse, stand there observing and watching people, then whisper amongst yourselves whilst shaking your heads and writing down notes.

Those people will immediately be on the defensive, will wonder what on earth is going on, and will likely feel very stressed.

Instead, introduce yourselves. Make sure that you straight away introduce yourselves to the people working there, and explain WHAT you are doing and WHY you are doing it.

Get them involved in the Waste Walk. I guarantee they will understand that process far better than you do, even if you think you know it inside out.

It’s also really crucial here that everyone is fully present. Please try not to answer emails or phone calls during the walk. Keep focused and engaged and listen very closely when the people in the area explain how their process works.

Tip #3 BE CURIOUS

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Ask the people in the area open questions about the process:

What slows you down?

What makes your work difficult?

Where in the process do you get frustrated?

My favourite – ask them “What bugs you?”.

You will find lots of waste there.

Remember this is not an interrogation, or an investigation into the people working in the area. Focus on the process, and what the process makes the people do. What slows the process down, what makes it hard.

Also remember, the purpose of a waste walk is to FIND the wastes, not solve them. That’s for later. Make sure you don’t get into long-winded discussions about how you can fix it, or why the waste exists. This process is just about identifying the wastes.

Tip #4 ALWAYS FOLLOW UP

Ideally, you would build regular waste walks into your schedule.

This could be a weekly practice for 30 minutes at a time. Or perhaps monthly for a little longer.

I know one organisation who do this daily for 10 minutes. It was clunky at first but now they have it down to a fine art and every time they find something new.

You could start at one end of your value stream and work your way through to the end, focusing on a small section at a time. Or you could arrange multiple Waste Walks to happen concurrently in different departments.

Whatever you do, the key is to act on what you find, consistently follow up and keep communicating.

You will likely finish the walk with a long list of wastes. You cannot possibly address all of them. Some will be harder to solve than others.

I’d recommend choosing one thing at a time to work on. Agree which one with the whole team, including the workers in the area.

Ask them which one they want fixed first. Then go and investigate and work on that waste.

If you can eliminate it, great, do that and then go tell the people in the area.

If you can’t, still go and tell the people in the area. Explain why.

Whatever you do, always follow up.

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So, go do a Waste Walk and make sure you are prepared; always explain why; be curious; and ALWAYS ensure you follow-up.

Do you undertake a regular practise of Waste Walks?

Do you have any other tips?

Let me know in the comments.

How to hunt down waste

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