Learn to Value Waste

October 4, 2010

I recently saw a quote by John Seddon: “There are only two kinds of activities in a work flow: value work and waste.”.  This got me thinking once again about how we define waste. Since I haven’t read Mr Seddons book “Freedom from Command & Control” (yet) and this quote was taken out of context, I won’t argue against his intention and meaning with this quote but I will begin my own argument based on these words.

It sounds good; you either produce value or you produce waste. That’s how we’ve been defining our lean and agile work for years now. But, it is too much of an oversimplification. Learning and improvement efforts are an essential part of our daily activities that we cannot label as waste, at the same time as our customer won’t necessarily label them as value work. Learning and improvement efforts are by their very nature investments in the future and our current clients might not freely pay for our future prosperity.

Let us start with the learning part. In development work, mistakes are our biggest source of potential learning. Variability that’s traditionally considered to be waste is necessary in order to facilitate learning. Development is to a large extent about doing things for the first time and there are no shortcuts to avoid every possible mistake without introducing other forms of waste.

Improvement efforts are also parts of the empirical learning process. There are usually no guarantees that our efforts will actually become improvements. They’re undertakings striving in a positive direction but they do by no means provide any insurance of success. Should we label an unsuccessful attempt at improvement as waste. My answer is No! In the words of Thomas A Edison; “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed.”.

The agile movement has traditionally given the customer the entire responsibility of defining value work. Donald Reinertsen argues against this view in his book “Flow – Second Generation Lean Product Development“, saying that:
“This view is both economically incorrect and dangerous. In reality, value-added is a well-established economic concept. The value added by an activity is the difference in the price that an economically rational buyer would pay for a work product before, and after, the activity is performed.”

I agree with Mr Reinertsen, but I still think that this view of value work is too narrow. If we are members of a learning organization that is constantly working with continous improvements, we must also allow for activities that facilitate this learning as an investment in the future. The knowledge that we can display today is the fruit of activities done earlier and the customer reaping the benefits of these previous investments will have to pay for them by reinvesting in our future knowledge.

I would now like to paraphrase Mr Seddon:
“There are three kinds of activities in a work flow: value work, waste and learning.”

When we fail to learn – then we have definitely created waste, but allowing for waste creation in the traditional sense is often the only and/or cheapest way to facilitate learning in development work. What we do need, is to find an economically feasible balance between producing value work in the traditional sense in order to satisfy todays customer, and the learning necessary to sustain our ability to deliver value work in the future.


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