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.

10 Minute Kanban Pizza

April 14, 2010

It never ceases to amaze me how poorly organized the work is in many restaurants and bars. Many lunch restaurants only get one seating per day because they haven’t planned their work properly. Bars often have a long line of customers waving their money and waiting for service instead of sitting at a table sipping their drinks. Even though I’m a software guy at heart, I’m seriously considering starting a lean consulting business aimed at restaurants (probably more on this in future posts).

However, there is one type of institution that often impresses me; the pizza place. These guys seem to run a Kanban-based manufacturing process, knowingly or not, with very good results. One of the more common process designs I’ve seen is where there’s one person running the cash register and answering the phone. He takes the orders and writes them on a note which he puts at the end of a que. The next person in the value stream is actually making the pizzas. He pulls the next work order from the que, flattens the dough and puts on the toppings according to specification. And finally one person is responsible for putting the pizzas into the oven and then taking them out again and putting them in the boxes. The WIP limits aren’t written anywhere but instead they seem to be self regulating. Whenever there are too many pizzas ready to go and there’s a line of customers, the first guy stops answering the phone and concentrates fully on payments and getting the inventory down. The guy baking pizzas has a table that can only fit two pizzas so his WIP limit is quite obvius. The oven can only hold a certain number of pizzas so once again we have a forced WIP limit.

The result of this design is that these guys can deliver their product with very high precision. Whenever you order a pizza the guy always says that it’ll be ready in ten minutes. And lo and behold, ten minutes later your standing there with a warm pizza box in your hands. Most product owners would probably die for this kind of predictability in their processes. Wouldn’t it be awesome to work with a development team that answered each new request that was prioritized to the top of the backlog with: “It’ll be ready in ten minutes.”?

Homework for tomorrow is to look at how the pizza place follow the 5S’s of Lean workplace organization. Knowingly or not, a lot of them do.

My 8th Waste of Lean

April 8, 2010

There have been several claims for the 8th waste in Lean so I probably shouldn’t make another one, especially since this is not really a waste but more of a cause for waste. However, it was the least sucky header that came to mind at the moment.

When I write “teaching” and “learning” below, I don’t primarily mean it in a school sense, but what we get from our daily interactions with each other. The teaching and learning that occurs in our conversations.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
– Mark Twain

“What you know for sure that just ain’t so” – This is the mother of many a f-up. I love Mark Twain’s way to put it but I’ll refer to it as “bad knowledge” from now on. The reasons for bad knowledge vary; it can be from bad teaching, bad learning or just knowledge based on bad/old information. The problem is that we have learned something once and keep holding the knowledge for true.

  • Bad knowledge causes bad decisions.
  • Bad knowledge causes unnecessary arguments.
  • Bad knowledge causes need for unlearning.
  • Bad knowledge causes bad teaching which causes bad knowledge.

What can be done to prevent these extra costs imposed by bad knowledge?
A couple of suggestions:
Don’t guess – When teaching something make sure it’s correct. Don’t spread bad knowledge based on gossip, guesses and hearsay.
Admit mistakes – If you’ve spread bad knowledge; swallow your pride and admit to being wrong. Try to correct any mistakes.
Collate – As a teacher and/or student; collate learning, understanding and teaching. Make sure that the understanding is not distorted from what has been taught.
Expiration date – Be aware that most knowledge has an expiration date. Put an expiration date of your own on what you learn or teach.

And finally:
Listen – Have an open mind to new knowledge. Everything that you know has a probability attached to it and this probability is never 100%. So when someone presents you with an option, hear them out before resorting to what you already know … that just might not be so.

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