Knowledge work creates a lot of value: new products, new acquisitions, and satisfied clients to name just a few. But knowledge work also creates waste, even when people are working hard, because just working hard doesn’t create value. Let’s define value as “something a customer is willing to pay for.” For external customers, value is usually created through superior products and services. Value for internal customers is more complicated; it includes increasing revenue, reducing costs, and speeding delivery of work product. We will define waste as everything we do that doesn’t create value. (Please see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/structured-approach-lean-knowledge-work-george-ellis/ for more detail.)
Experts create value in two major ways (see Fig 1). The first is through creativity and innovation. A flash of clarity solving a problem. A moment of invention. For most of us, those moments are the main reason we chose the difficult path of becoming experts. The second way is “the heavy lifting,” the hard work to support those moments of inspiration. 100 hours coding a brilliant solution. 2 months testing an amazing design. 6 weeks executing due diligence for a gem of an acquisition.
Figure 1. More than 75% of knowledge work generates waste
How much of our effort goes towards waste? The magnitude may surprise you. The most common estimates are around 85%! You may be thinking “not us…we’re better than that.” That’s what I thought when I first heard this estimate because I couldn’t see the waste–it was hidden, as it almost always is. So, how do you find hidden waste? Decades ago, Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System, wrote about the “Seven Wastes,” which focus on factory work, for example, Inventory. This created a common language for discussing and understanding waste in manufacturing. But Ohno’s Seven Wastes don’t look much like anything we see in knowledge work.
Knowledge work is fundamentally different from manufacturing because the output is extraordinarily dependent on the individual: his or her expertise, creativity, and ability to work in a team. So, the largest waste comes from those areas that block creativity, engagement, and the flow of information. Those are the areas that most diminish the value a knowledge organization creates and so are the focus of The Eight Wastes of Knowledge Work (see Fig 2).
Figure 2. DIMINISH: The Eight Wastes of Knowledge Work
Disconnected Vision captures the waste when knowledge staff shares little common purpose with the organization. It disengages the team and limits their ability to propose alternatives or react to unforeseen circumstances. The adage, “he who has a why will always find a how“ helps explain why every knowledge staffer should be connected to the vision.
Information Friction is the phenomenon where important information is isolated to a handful of people. For example,
· A salesperson’s knowledge of customer behavior is unavailable to a product development team.
· An expert’s keen understanding of a risk is never communicated to the leadership.
· A manufacturing engineer’s experience with defects never gets to a product manager.
In each case, the information needed to do work and make decisions is somewhere in the organization, but doesn’t make its way to a person who needs it.
When teams pull in opposite directions, a great deal of effort may be expended and yet no value is created. For example, when Sales is targeting one product, but R&D develops another. Or when Customer Service has a goal for rapid installations, but Operations has no focus on speeding delivery of needed install kits. Or when Marketing must expand geographical reach but the IT department doesn’t support the web site in those regions.
Inferior Problems come in two main types: Unimportant Problems and Wrong Problems. The Unimportant Problem is something customers don’t need to be solved. The Wrong problem is misunderstanding a problem that customers do want solved. The waste of solving an inferior problem can be large, even spectacular. Peter Drucker is often quoted saying “Nothing is less productive than doing what should not be done at all.”
You want knowledge staff engaged like sports fans, but a day full of no-win contests will deenergize almost anyone. Too many times knowledge staffers are given so much to do or such a short time to finish, that they cannot see a path to success. It’s easy to imagine the response: few people will give their all just to lose by a little less.
Inadequate Measure captures the waste when the team partially implements a good solution or focuses on a solution that doesn’t address the root of the problem. In either case, the value derived from the solution is disappointing. Worse, many knowledge organizations don’t even measure the value they create, so they may find out about the disappointing results long after the fact.
Solution Blindness is the all-too-common phenomenon of one or more team members embracing a favored solution too vigorously. They may ignore evidence when the solution comes up short. Critical thinking ceases as the cost sunk in a bad solution continues to mount. Solution Blindness is especially prominent in teams that don’t maintain close touch with users and customers.
The eighth waste is Hidden Errors. Some errors are inevitable because the paths of knowledge work are long and complex. Of course, we all endeavor to minimize error creation, but it is those hidden errors that “escape” to the customer that cause most of the waste. Designers will make a few mistakes. Sales will occasionally gather incorrect information. The strength of the organization is not only in reducing the number of errors created, but also preventing those inevitable few from making their way to clients, customers, and patients.
The first step to eliminating waste is to realize that it is hiding in plain sight all around us. I hope the Eight Wastes of Knowledge Work will help you illuminate and ultimately eliminate the waste in your organization.
About the author: George Ellis practices and writes about lean knowledge work. At the end of 2018, he retired from Danaher after 35 years of service, most recently as VP Global R&D for X-Rite. He now develops knowledge work tools and is writing “The Knowledge to Improve” to be published later this year.
Knowledge work is broadly defined as the professions, for example, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and business developers. They are often referred to as “those who think for a living”.
 Ohno, T. (1988), Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production, Productivity Press, Portland, Oregon
Vice President, Innovation Practice
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