‘Learning to See’ is a Lean Journey

Waste can take many forms, and each person can identify and eliminate it when they "see" it.


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Many organizations have put time and money into the implementation of different lean tools in the attempt to eliminate waste throughout their operations. Often, companies have over-engineered the process of waste elimination and then wonder why they have not achieved success. There is a first step that is critical in the process of the lean journey and waste elimination, and it is a simple process of “learning to see.”

What does “learning to see” mean? The term comes from an ability to see waste where it was not perceived before. One of the key steps is the identification of which activities “add value” and which do not. The activities that don’t add value (waste) are subdivided into “non-value added, but necessary” waste and pure waste. The clear identification of waste in this manner helps highlight assumptions or beliefs behind current work processes and challenge them. You can ask simple questions like “why” to challenge how things are done today and help develop a better, more efficient, way for the future.

Waste can take many forms, and each person can identify and eliminate it when they “see” it. The following is a list of the eight most common forms of waste, along with some examples seen throughout the industry. Hopefully, you can identify some of these in your daily work and eliminate them, or at least bring them to someone’s attention.

1. Transportation. Each time a product is moved it can get damaged, lost or delayed. An example is the unnecessary movement of parts between processes. How often do you move a WIP skid around the production area or move it in/out of the warehouse before completing the job?

2. Motion. As compared with transportation, motion normally refers to movement of “man.” Waste motion occurs when individuals move more than is necessary for the process. How many times do we touch or move a part? How far do we need to walk to place a part on a skid or retrieve parts we need? How often do we walk around the shop looking for something because it isn’t where it is supposed to be?

3. Extra Processing. Over-processing occurs any time more work is done on a part than what is required by the customer. If we improve process efficiency we ultimately use fewer resources to achieve the same level of customer satisfaction. Other causes of over-processing include out of date standards and an attitude of “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

4. Defects. Whenever defects occur, extra costs are incurred for rework, quarantining suspect parts, added inspection and scrap. Unfortunately, our customers aren’t normally willing to pay for any of these costs.

5. Waiting. Whenever a product is not being transported or processed, it is waiting. A large part of a product’s life is spent waiting to be worked on. How long does it take for a given job to be started up and completed? How long before a finished good skid moves from production to finished goods and then ships? How long do WIP parts wait to be processed? How long does it take us to change-over a machine and get back up and running?

6. Inventory. Whether it is raw material, WIP or finished goods, inventory represents money spent that has not yet produced income for your company. While some inventory is necessary it is often used to cover up issues because of inconsistent production schedules, excessive downtime/set up, overly large production runs, unreliable suppliers or inaccurate forecasting.

7. Overproduction. This means producing more than required at that time by your customers. Basically, manufacturing too much, too early or just in case. Overproduction leads to excess inventory. How often have we “run the material out on a job,” then spent time moving the extra parts in and out of the WIP aisles only to lose track of it later?

8. Lack of employee involvement and creativity. This is the worst kind of waste. Lean doesn’t work unless everyone is involved and has input. The best companies in the world tap the creativity and talent of the whole organization and not just a select few.

Using “learning to see” to identify waste helps any company and employee improve. When you have a moment, pick a spot on the shop floor and stand for 30 minutes, observe the eight sources of waste and put a plan together to eliminate them.