Five Great Wastes

Following a conversation with my friend Jim Selman, I decided to dust off my story about the kinds of things that I think are going to be the most important “wastes” of the time that is coming. Taiichi Ohno of Toyota fame was my original inspiration for this line of thinking.

Historic inventions are often built from historic difficulties, and they are always accompanied by new distinctions. At the end of the Second World War, the people of Japan were in terrible trouble, their morale, productive capacity, and international relations demolished. An engineer named Taiichi Ohno, in the enterprise today known as Toyota, began the task of building a new capacity for Japanese production, on top of Henry Ford’s designs, with some important additions. Ford incorporated everything into one plant; Ohno designed for operation in a network. Ford went all out for volume, and minimized variety, in the interpretation that this was the most efficient way to support the US market, and make the money that he needed to support enormous investments and pay his workers enough to buy his cars (roughly doubling the historic pay for that kind of employment). Ohno built a production system that would optimize scarce capital and raw materials, allowing efficient operation with small production runs. The operational heart of Ford’s designs were the way the engineers designed the coordination of the work; Ohno’s design was centered in processes that built the capacity of each person on the production floor to take responsibility for the quality and coordination of their work. Ohno’s inventions became the foundation of the quality movement that swept the world starting in the 1970s and 80s.

To keep the workers thinking, Ohno invented a new collection of “wastes” for them to observe and eliminate. Waste is an assessment, an interpretation; the word “waste” names a class of assessments that we make about events, phenomena, and features of our world that diminish our capacity to take care of what matters to us. For example, Ohno said that time that workers spent waiting – for parts, or for others to complete work, and many other things – was waste. The value of that interpretation was immediately obvious to most observers. Until right around now, the most important classes of waste in human enterprises have had to do with scarce resources: waste of money, waste of materials, waste of opportunities, waste of human time and capacities.

What was not immediately obvious to most observers was Ohno’s interpretation that inventories were waste. This example, the “waste” of inventories, illustrates the way that we invent new wastes. Before Ohno said ‘inventories are waste’, there was no question that inventories were an asset. They appeared on the balance sheet, they could be re-sold, they gave confidence to people that production could be sustained and customers satisfied with products from the inventories, and so forth. By inventing the interpretation that inventories are waste, and putting attention on many other previously underappreciated wastes such as workers waiting to work, Ohno was able to trigger important revisions in the way the people of Toyota thought and acted. What we in the West now call “just-in-time logistics,” and many other innovations of the last 30 years, were born in these inventions.

Now, since wastes are particular to specific concerns, and concerns change, the wastes that are appropriate for particular moments in time … change! What was wasteful yesterday may or may not be wasteful tomorrow. In fact, the wastes with which we have orchestrated our interpretations of work for the last 50 years – wasted movement, wasted time, wasted resources, and so forth – were invented in the traditions of the industrial revolution. I am convinced that they will not be the most important wastes for human enterprises in the next 50 years. In the “old” world – the era of work that is now passing – we understood ourselves as intelligent and largely autonomous agents moving around in a world of fixed objects that we manipulated to achieve certain goals. Today, increasingly, we are understanding ourselves as moving in relationship with other human beings, inventing worlds together as our concerns shift, and coordinating our work together to satisfy those concerns. Central to the challenge of building skills and capacity for working in this “new” world, is a fundamental re-orientation to work. The notions of agility, adaptability, flexibility, and other popular notions are connected to this.

Here is my list of the most important wastes for the coming era – the Five Great Wastes:

1. Not Listening: Tolerating working together in conditions in which people do not and often cannot effectively speak and listen to each other, in the midst of institutionalized mistrust, resignation, resentment, and simple incompetence for speaking and listening. We tolerate a world of practices in which the fundamental expressions of our moods and emotions about our worlds and our futures are ignored or spurned.

2. Bureaucratic Styles: Working together bureaucratically, undertaking to design and produce our work through sterile procedures — sequences of movements and activities — in which our concerns show up at best only briefly before and after the work, but not during it. We interact with each other as if we would be better off were we simply machines doing tasks.

3. Worship of Information: Orienting ourselves, our actions and our attention around information and information systems, valuing “data” and “measures” above the interpretations of the human beings in the enterprise. We tolerate the illusion that the essential matters of work can be invented, managed and sustained through the creation, storage, retrieval, display and publication of information.

4. Suppressing Innovation: Tolerating ways of working in which people, ideas, and practices that are different, unusual, or new are avoided, feared, or rejected, so that it becomes all but impossible to develop flexibility and evolve practices for dealing with a changing world.

5. Work as Toil: Tolerating the interpretation that work consists fundamentally of unrelenting sequences of “things to do” that have only commercial value, we invent a kind of ‘modern indentured servitude.’ We sell ourselves into service in exchange for money and fleeting “real” lives available to us outside of working hours, outside of work. In this interpretation, most people appear as victims trapped by their needs to make a living, prepare for retirement, support families, and so forth. We ignore, diminish, or distort the ways that work brings meaning to people’s lives and takes care of features of the world for which people care.

These “Great Wastes” produce a major part of the cost of running and working in enterprises today. When I have taken the time to add up the “costs of miscoordination” that can be attributed to these wastes for clients, I usually end up with numbers in excess of 75% of the administrative and managerial costs of all parts of the enterprise.

If people are not listening to each other, because of mistrust, resignation, resentment, and other poisons, accomplishing anything significant becomes extremely expensive, and making effective changes becomes all but impossible. Bureaucracies pay attention to the correctness of their practices, and to their standards. From within a bureaucracy tremendous wastes are not even visible: repetition, unnecessary actions, obsolete actions, actions that produce the opposite of their designers’ intents, and actions that produce horrific side effects. The environment of Eastern Europe was an epic monument to bureaucratic blindness, and global warming may become an even more important monument. Information systems don’t take care of people, and the failure of the information systems field to fulfill its promises for improving management and organizational life underlie the confusion of IT managers about the value they produce. An organization that cannot innovate is dead; the only things missing are the inevitable result, and suffering along the way. And finally, to have our work be toil saps all our strength and turns people’s working lives from a source of inspiration and contribution in life to a gray daily hiatus in a futile search for meaning.

New orientations for building value

“Waste” is a curious assessment. Assessments generally have the role in our lives of inviting action. “Help,” “Fire,” and “Look out” are universal attention-getters. “I feel like a coffee” invites the speaker, and possibly others, to start looking for a place to get one. The assessment that something is a waste invites people to go to work to eliminate it. When my daughter Livia grasped from her mother that my occasional cigarette smoking was wasteful – of my health and our money – she became a formidable detective for finding the places in which I had secreted them. A central operational mechanism of the current environmental movement has been the declaration of wastes that have mobilized a world of actions.

The feature that is “curious” is the way that by eliminating the right kinds of wastes, a community “backs itself” into a new future, without having to say precisely what the future will be. My interpretation is that the central operating mechanism of the invention of the Toyota Production System was the collection of “new wastes” declared by Taiichi Ohno. Those writing about TPS tend to speak about the values that constitute it; my interpretation is that it is only with the wisdom of hindsight that we can say those things. The invention of TPS was accomplished by a group of waste-gatherers who diligently backed themselves into a new future by eliminating sets of innovative wastes.

The perspective of these five “new” wastes does, in fact, invite a re-orientation of our understanding of our selves and our work that will lead to new ways for organizations to produce lasting value:

* Our understanding of listening shifts away from determining the “requirements” of customers as shallow lists of targets for our products and services. We move, instead towards collaboration with our customers, suppliers, and investors to invent mutually enriching arrangements. We attune ourselves to other people as embodiments and disclosers of concerns, traditions, experiences, and ambitions, and together we build competence for speaking, listening, and building trust.

* Our design of cooperative work shifts from managing the handoffs of materials and information to complete tasks, to inventing platforms for the delivery of services: structures of requests, promises, assessments and declarations in which people come together to take care of their concerns and invent futures together.

* Our design of information systems shifts from managing the movement and protecting the security of information in the enterprise, to developing and continuously redesigning robust, reliable, and effective infrastructures for communication and action.

* Our interpretation of the future shifts from extrapolations of today to an open field of innovation – designing and discovering – in our common world. Continuously reinventing concerns, offers, and work practices is a natural aspect of our working relationships. Competences and practices for innovation and entrepreneurship need to be developed and will be pivotal for bringing and taking care of our future. We listen to the continuously changing concerns and conditions of the world as opportunities for us, our customers, our suppliers, and our investors. We embrace relationships with those who are different from us as a fountain from which innovations for the future can be brought.

* Our interpretation of ourselves at work shifts from toil and renting our bodies to the opportunities we have to invent ourselves as interpreters and participants in structures serving the concerns of ourselves and other people. Our relationships with our enterprises are partnerships, in which our contributions to the financial strength, practical knowledge, and reputation of the company are also our route to developing our own financial success, competence, and identities in the world.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Chauncey Bell August 22, 2007


10 thoughts on “Five Great Wastes

  1. Chauncey I live in an interpretation that has been influenced by you and I see those wastes daily. It is useful in terms of building new solutions for my customers but not so useful in terms of impressing the seniors that look at me – although the effectiveness of the solutions helps with that.

    One waste that I didn’t see listed is the waste of “not knowing”. When people are in a state of “having to figure out status” they spend much of their time trying to figure out where stuff it – the stuff that is really important that they are searching is the status of where they are with each other.


  2. Thank you for the interesting comment, Bob.

    I am not sure where I want to deal with the questions of ignorance and cognitive blindness in the great wastes. Maybe everywhere. We start with the distinction among (1) what we know that we know, (2) what we know that we don’t know, and (3) what we don’t know that we don’t know. Then we add dimensions such as what we think that we know that we really don’t know – the kinds of interpretations that lead us to errors of pride and hubris. I agree that poor interpretations of the background in which we are making any kinds of interpretations at all are sources of “great wastes” in the same sense that I intended the original list of 5. Maybe the list needs some extensions….

    On the subject of the great wastes not being real useful for talking with executives, let’s talk more about that, because while I agree that as a theoretical structure it is not likely to be helpful with most executives, on the other hand as a set of raw materials for building conversations with executives I find it spectacularly useful.

    Thanks again.

  3. Chauncey, I find your post on the 5 wastes very useful, particularly the 5th waste as I read thereafter there is “hope”, and I find myself feeling uncomfortably disturbed by several ideas you express that I understand ase painfully entrenched habits – “working as toil, modern indentured servitude, etc”. What I really love is the idea you share that through the elimination of this waste a new future arises I am not presently aware – it’s true – I can’t imagine what that would be like. The problem is, how does one go about eliminating this waste? Is this a reality I’m dealing with, or just a interpetation I fall into?

  4. I’d like to comment on Robert Wilson’s comment about the waste of not knowing and your response Chauncey.

    I suspect it is misdirected to decalre “not knowing” as a waste. We can never escape not knowing. As you say, Chauncey, cognitive blindness is everywhere in all 5 wastes. The universe is, in part, mysterious and it will always be so. What if we learn to live with the mystery instead of trying to eliminate it.

    I’m not taking an anti-learning stance here. Instead, I am saying that declaring not knowing as a waste and therefore to be eliminated goes too far. Declaring not knowing as a waste is actually anti-learning since not knowing something is the very possibility of learning something. What if we welcomed it and cultivated awareness of our “not knowing”?

    In fact, an interesting set of declarations would be that which we must cultivate to go along side that which we must eliminate (wastes). For example, compassion, strength, power, joy, will, clarity, love, etc. Of course, this list is probably even more difficulty to talk to executives about. 🙂 What we must cultivate is also mostly invisible in situations and we would benefit by bringing those to light too.

  5. Here is a little clarification about the waste of Not Knowing.

    What I am interested in is attacking the waste created by the act of having to go find out the status of where you are in coordination with others in the organization. For example, at any moment an engineer working as part of a cross functional team may be in coordination with one to many people. That engineer should have a sense of the status of that coordination available at their fingertips. When that engineering comes into work and they first must go find out where the thing is that somebody said they would do before they can actually start working on the product then that is waste. There is no reason why the status of any given interaction shouldn’t be available in a sort of portal kind of view for that engineer so that they can focus on the what is next. Instead you find the engineering first having to go search out the who said what when and where and then they can start focusing on next steps.

    To me this is a great waste.

  6. I appreciate all of the comments about “not knowing”, and think this is very important. More specifically it should be something like not knowing something that should be easy to know, like what Robert Wilson says in his recent comment. Having this knowledge makes it easier for one to place themselves more accurately in the distinctions around knowledge that Chauncey mentions above.

    If you consider what has happened with the Internet, just the fact of being able to quickly and usefully get knowledge has enabled whole new classes of businesses (for example micro-ISVs) to be able to start with nothing and produce meaningful products. Without the availability of easy to access knowledge this was not possible. So much time is wasted (and this really results in an feeling of toil) when one seeks information and can’t get it easily, or one does work based on a misunderstanding. The ideas that Google have and are embodied in things like Wikis really help, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface here.

  7. Pingback: Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 5 « Chauncey Bell Blog

  8. Pingback: What is Waste? « Jesse Stallone

  9. Pingback: Redefining Value: The New Metrics of Sustainable Business | Natural Logic

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