When waste masquerades as work.

Garr Reynolds' excellent blog, Presentation Zen, points out that the president of Toyota Motor Company is urging employees to stop using Powerpoint for the creation of documents. (By the way, if you want to learn how to make better presentations, you can't do better than to read Garr's blog and buy his book. You'll never think about Powerpoint the same way again. And your audiences will thank you for it.) Garr writes,

Watanabe said that (in the good old days?) they used to use one piece of paper to make a clear point or proposal, or to summarize an issue, but now everything is in PowerPoint, he says, which uses many sheets of paper and expensive colors...but it's a waste. The CEO is not saying that PowerPoint is necessarily harmful (he does not mention its use for actual presentations), but he is saying printed "documents" made with the presentation tool tend to have less content, less clarity, and yet use more paper/ink and take more time.
When I work with clients at their desks, I'm repeatedly astonished at the electronic and physical pileup of Powerpoint decks. Reams of paper stacked up on credenzas, gigabytes of memory clogging mail servers, all in the interest of communication. But is this really the best way to communicate? Is the purpose of the communication -- which is to say, the transmission of information -- getting obscured by the medium we're using? Are we creating waste instead of efficiency?

I'm not talking strictly about Powerpoint, of course. I'm referring to all forms of internal communication: email, meetings, presentations, quick conversations in the hallway, etc. It's important to consider the best way to transmit the information. A meeting with eight people on a project team may not be the best method for delivering updates, given how busy people are and how difficult it is to schedule meetings. An email sent to the team, or a company wiki, might be more efficient. Conversely, a long email exchange among half a dozen people probably isn't the best way to solve a thorny problem; a meeting is a more natural and more effective way of identifying root causes and generating solutions.

In a larger sense, so much stuff we do -- or are asked to do -- is waste masquerading as work. Take a look at some of those unread emails in your inbox from six weeks or six months ago: clearly, the organization has survived your lack of attention to whatever the issue was, and you haven't been fired. In that case, was that email really important? Was the work requested in the email of any real value? Did that 90 minute meeting you attended really need to run that long? Do you really need to keep a copy of that 15MB Powerpoint in both your inbox AND your sent items? As Garr writes in his blog,

In the context of a challenging economy and an atmosphere of reducing costs, what would you say of any business practice that (1) takes more time, (2) costs more money, and yet (3) appears to be less effective? In the spirit of kaizen (continuous improvement), even if the waste is small, it must be eliminated.
You have to be vigilant about the eradication of waste in all facets of work. Whether waste takes the form of meetings that start 10 minutes late, unnecessary FYI emails, bloated Powerpoint slide decks, or time lost looking for files on your desk (or file server), it's critical to distinguish between waste and real work.