04 April 2021

Lean Management: Between Value and Waste I (Introduction)


Independently on whether Lean Management is considered in the context of Manufacturing, Software Development (SD), Project Management (PM) or any other business-related areas, there are three fundamental business concepts on which the whole scaffolding of the Lean philosophies is built upon, namely the ones of value, value stream and waste. 

From an economic standpoint, value refers to the monetary worth of a product, asset or service (further referred as product) to an organization, while from a qualitative perspective, it refers to the perceived benefit associated with its usage. The value is thus reflected in the costs associated with a product’s delivery (producer’s perspective), respectively the price paid on acquiring it and the degree to which the product can fulfill a demand (customer’s perspective).

Without diving too deep into theory of product valuation, the challenges revolve around reducing the costs associated with a product’s delivery, respectively selling it to a price the customer is willing to pay for, typically to address a given set of needs. Moreover, the customer is willing to pay only for the functions that satisfy the needs a product is thought to cover. From this friction of opposing driving forces, a product is designed and valued.

The value stream is the sequence of activities (also steps or processes) needed to deliver a product to customers. This formulation includes value-added and non-value-added activities, internal and external customers, respectively covers the full lifecycle of products and/or services in whatever form it occurs, either if is or not perceived by the customers.  

Waste is any activity that consumes resources but creates no value for the customers or, generally, for the stakeholders, be it internal or external. The waste is typically associated with the non-added value activities, activities that don’t produce value for stakeholders, and can increase directly or indirectly the costs of products especially when no attention is given to it and/or not recognized as such. Therefore, eliminating the waste can have an important impact on products’ costs and become one of the goals of Lean Management. Moreover, eliminating the waste is an incremental process that, when put in the context of continuous improvement, can lead to processes redesign and re-engineering.

Taiichi Ohno, the ‘father’ of the Toyota Production System (TPS), originally identified seven forms of waste (Japanese: muda): overproduction, waiting, transporting, inappropriate processing, unnecessary inventory, unnecessary/excess motion, and defects. Within the context of SD and PM, Tom and Marry Poppendieck [1] translated the types of wastes in concepts closer to the language of software developers: partially done work, extra processes, extra features, task switching, waiting, motion and, of course, defects. To this list were added later further types of waste associated with resources, confusion and work conditions.

Defects in form of errors and bugs, ineffective communication, rework and overwork, waiting, repetitive activities like handoffs or even unnecessary meetings are usually the visible part of products and projects and important from the perspective of stakeholders, which in extremis can become sensitive when their volume increases out of proportion.

Unfortunately, lurking in the deep waters of projects and wrecking everything that stands in their way are the other forms of waste less perceivable from stakeholders’ side: unclear requirements/goals, code not released or not tested, specifications not implemented, scrapped code, overutilized/underutilized resources, bureaucracy, suboptimal processes, unnecessary optimization, searching for information, mismanagement, task switching, improper work condition, confusion, to mention just the important activities associated to waste.

Through their elusive nature, independently on whether they are or not visible to stakeholders, they all impact the costs of projects and products when the proper attention is not given to them and not handled accordingly.

Lean Management - The Waste Iceberg

[1] Mary Poppendieck & Tom Poppendieck (2003) Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, Addison Wesley, ISBN: 0-321-15078-3

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