Notwithstanding the Wall Street Journal's recent (and frequent) misunderstandings about lean, a lot of very fine firms with enlightened leadership see lean as the road to lower costs, higher quality, and a better work environment. The investment they make and the results they achieve are impressive, and best of all, the ones that really "get it" know that they're on a never-ending road of improvement. There's always the possibility of eliminating waste from the firm's operations, of reducing wasted inputs.

But my friend Tom asks the following: how lean can a company be when it ignores the enormous amounts of time wasted by workers, managers, and executives?

Time is a non-renewable resource, so you'd think that people in companies would treat it with a bit more respect. And yet from the top of the corporate food chain to the bottom, most people seem to ignore its value. People start meetings late and allow them to run long, waste time processing no-value-added email (which other workers have spent time creating), interrupt others' value-added work with non-urgent issues, and lose countless hours just looking for information in the landfill that masquerades as their office. They ignore the lean tools they're so passionate about applying on the factory floor -- visual management, 5S, and standard work -- when it comes to their work habits and their workplace.

God help you if your job is operating a machine on an assembly line and you don't do your regularly scheduled 5S, or use a whiteboard to track actual vs. planned production.  But if you work in an office, when was the last time you did a thorough 5S?  Take a look at the piles of paper on your desk, or the 4,921 emails in your inbox and answer that honestly. When was the last time you looked at your planned production and compared it to what you actually did?  How about standard work: have you created standard work for your routine daily or weekly activities? And the biggest question of all: when was the last time you did PDCA on your own work?

In a managerial or executive role, there's always going to be variability that creates waste and messes up your production: a customer has a problem that needs to be addressed right now. There's an HR problem brewing. Your latest shipment from China got held up in customs. Whatever. That waste is unavoidable, because life never quite goes according to plan.

But there's plenty of work that's predictable and can be standardized. And for that work, how can you accept the mindless addition of resources -- time, in particular -- when lean is all about reducing resource inputs? How can you accept people working late or on weekends to complete work that should/could be done during a normal work schedule? It's true that for non-hourly workers, that cost is invisible -- companies don't pay a VP more when she comes into the office on Sunday to finish the marketing plan. Just because the cost is invisible, however, doesn't mean that it isn't waste. And if it's waste, it should be analyzed with a rigorous PDCA cycle.

In a previous blog post (here, or download the article here) I wrote about applying Toyota's notion of "lowering the water level" to time: if we reduce the "inventory" of time we have available, we'll force ourselves to become more efficient.  (This is nothing more than my fancy take on Parkinson's Law.) I still believe that. However, I realize that in order to lower the "temporal water level" (Sorry -- I just saw Star Trek and have space-time continuums on my mind.), we have to do PDCA to discover the root causes of the problems that keep us from getting our jobs done, and to develop countermeasures.

I hear people say over and over that "time is my most precious resource." But they sure don't act like it. They mindlessly accept wasted and inefficiently used time at the office, because it doesn't come with an easily readable price tag. I suggest that if that's the dominant mindset at your organization, the lean mentality really hasn't seeped into people's consciousness. You may have people deploying lean tools, but they haven't yet made lean part of their lives.

Look, the economy blows, and it's likely to continue blowing for a good long time. Undoubtedly, your organization is feeling serious financial pressures due to the environment. Can you afford to cavalierly flush so much valuable time down the toilet everyday? Imagine what you could accomplish if everyone in the company had an extra two hours per week to solve problems or create something your customer really wants.

Here's my challenge to you: turn those PDCA goggles onto your own work habits and workspace. See if you can root out the waste in how you operate. And imagine having more time to create value for your customers, your staff, your family, and yourself.

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