Reducing Waste in Your Operations

This three-step approach can help you streamline the eight major activities in your operation that don’t provide value to your customers.


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Most of us understand that a key to continuous improvement is the recognition and elimination of waste in our operations. Of course, this requires an understanding of what waste really is. In simple terms, waste is any activity that does not create value for the customer. If we produce molds, anything that directly relates to the fabrication of these molds, including designing or machining them right the first time, creates value for those customers. Anything else we do, even to support our internal business requirements, is unlikely to create value for the customer. Ultimately, waste is costly, and it is something customers do not want to pay for. 

I have written frequently over the years about the eight major wastes we encounter in manufacturing, service and administrative operations. I recently ran across a clever acronym that aids in remembering these wastes: DOWNTIME. This word not only incorporates the first letters of each of the wastes, but describes an outcome that can be directly attributed to any of them: 

Defects – Items that are made wrong and need to be fixed.
Overproduction – Making more, earlier or faster than is required by the next process.
Waiting – Idle time created because something went wrong or did not happen.
Non-Value Added Processing – Effort that adds no value to the product from the customers’ viewpoint.
Transportation – Movement of parts, materials, tools, equipment or paperwork through the facility.
Inventory – Any supply in excess of a one-piece flow through the process.
Motion – Any movement of people or machines that does not add value to the product or service.
Employee Underutilization – Not using workers’ abilities to the fullest.

I have found the following three-step approach to be an effective means of eliminating, or at least reducing, these eight wastes and ultimately improving any operation.

1. Understand what and where waste is. Recognition of waste is essential to its elimination. This requires reviewing current processes and seeking out any waste that exists. There are a number of ways to do this. A simple “waste walk” is a good technique for learning to recognize waste where it occurs. In this technique, a team literally walks the flow of a process, backtracking when necessary (a sure sign of waste) and recording all wastes found along the way. The team approach increases the likelihood of finding waste in the process.

Another technique for uncovering waste is value stream mapping, a highly visual means of showing the relationship between value-added activities and non-value added activities (waste) in any process. Flow charts and process maps can also reveal excessive handoffs, duplicate or repetitive activities, long-elapsed times, and low yield rates—all symptoms of waste in a process.

2. Train employees how to use tools needed to eliminate or reduce waste. There are certainly many tools available to attack waste, with many categorized as “lean tools.” All employees should have a basic understanding of such tools and of how they can be used in the fight against waste. Standardized work procedures help assure that everyone carries out tasks in the most effective, repeatable and consistent way. Visual controls make requirements clearer and provide immediate feedback on operating conditions. Point-of-use storage techniques ensure that employees have what they need to do their jobs effectively. Total productive maintenance helps keep equipment running smoothly so it is available when needed.

Although it can be argued that any lean tool can address any type of waste, the chart below identifies the tools best-suited to each of the eight major wastes identified here.


3. Implement the appropriate tools in key areas and measure results. The first two steps in this approach to reducing operational waste are educational. This third step requires action; the education is put to use and improvement is realized.

Kaizen events (discussed in-depth in recent columns) are geared toward achieving meaningful, but narrowly focused results quickly. They are an ideal method for creating a well-organized workplace, reducing machine change-over times and introducing some best practices. Projects requiring a longer-term commitment of time and resources may be needed for plant layout changes, development of “pull systems” for timely and cost-effective inventory replenishment, and generation of some standard work instructions. During this implementation step, meaningful metrics must be established to show the impact of waste reduction throughout the organization.

Consider this three-step approach to cutting waste in your organization’s continuous improvement effort.