A saying that was prevalent in my childhood was “waste not, want not”. The underlying idea of this is that you shouldn’t let anything go to waste. It was something that I was often told at the dinner table – meaning ‘don’t leave anything on your plate’. I suppose that when food was a little less abundant than it is now, that was a good idea, but as time goes on, the years pass, and I can see and feel the effects of a slowing metabolism, that previously good advice really seems to be missing the point. Just because we produce something, doesn’t mean we should consume it – but that creates waste. So maybe we should only consume and so produce what we need.

Part of my mindset that I apply in my consulting work day-to-day is ‘Lean Thinking’. To me this is the philosophy that underpins lean manufacturing and is an approach for efficient working that is finding its way into many industries and businesses; it is no longer restricted to manufacturing – it is benefitting every form of human endeavour.

The father of lean, Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Production Systems, identified 7 Wastes*, and while there are many authors that have tried to rewrite these for different working environments, these original 7 still hold true and can be applied in any situation. An eighth has recently been added: the waste of human potential, and it seems to be sticking to the pack. Anyway, I thought that these wastes would be an excellent foundation for a series of blogs; the 8th has already been the inspiration behind many of my previous posts. Have you noticed?

So, back to ‘waste not, want not’, and the first of the Big 7 wastes: ‘overproduction’. This is the most insidious of all the wastes and is often the cause of the others. The reason we ‘overproduce’ (and we all do – don’t deny it) every day, is human nature. What else? Overproduction is simply that: producing more than we need, or sooner than we need it. It’s in our natures – our human natures.   We are hard-wired to expect scarcity – and for most of the time that humans have been on the earth, that has been our experience. We gather, we collect, we hoard, we make more than we need. All because we are hard-wired to survive, and we think that having a little extra while it’s available will carry us through when times are tough – as inevitably they would be. But we have done such a good job of creating civilisations and economies that our survival instinct is now working against us.

Here are a few examples of overproduction: making a pot of coffee when you just need a single cup, printing out 10 copies of an agenda for a meeting just in case people haven’t brought their own, making things in batches (eg muffins) especially big batches, ordering large quantities of items and maybe sooner than we need because of uncertainty about getting those items when we really need them. Some of these may seem trivial, but when you transfer that approach or instinct to business activities and high-cost items, then the waste and the cost of waste can become huge. It’s not just the cost of the item itself that you have not consumed or used: there is the opportunity cost, you have to dispose of it, store it, move it around, work around it. And it is each of these knock-on effects that constitute the other wastes – and they, in turn, have costs associated with them.

So, while it is great to find a use for overproduced items (invite people in to share your excess coffee and muffins) so that they don’t go to waste (waste not, want not), it would be far better to not overproduce the items in the first place, and just produce fresh coffee and muffins when you have guests. Take a look around your office or workplace and identify all the things that are there ‘just in case’, or ‘just because’ that’s the way we do things. Prepare to shock yourself. Then ask yourself: “how much is all that costing me over a year” – both directly and indirectly.

Are you guilty-as-charged?


* The 7+1 Wastes are: Overproduction, Over-processing, Defects, Waiting, Inventory, Transport, Motion and Human Potential