What Is Muda? Eliminating Waste From Your Career + Life

Muda Waste Definition

Fact: As your days get busier, you lose more and more of your time to waste.

Japanese business thinkers, specifically the creators and disciples of the Toyota Production System, have a term for this waste: muda

In Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, the authors go into detail on the ways that muda can creep into your organization and your processes:

It sounds awful as it rolls off your tongue and it should, because muda means “waste,” specifically any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value: mistakes which require rectification, production of items no one wants so that inventories and remaindered goods pile up, processing steps which aren’t actually needed, movement of employees and transport of goods from one place to another without any purpose, groups of people in a downstream activity standing around waiting because an upstream activity has not delivered on time, and goods and services which don’t meet the needs of the customer.

The good news is that clever people have solved the problem of waste or muda before. They simply come from a context many of us are not familiar with. They are upstart and serial entrepreneurs, Lean Startup thinkers, the snowbirds who wrote the Agile Manifesto, and revolutionary Japanese management gurus like Taiichi Ohno, originator of Lean Manufacturing:

Fortunately, there is a powerful antidote to muda: lean thinking. It provides a way to specify value, line up value-creating actions in the best sequence, conduct these activities without interruption whenever someone requests them, and perform them more and more effectively. In short, lean thinking is lean because it provides a way to do more and more with less and less—less human effort, less equipment, less time, and less space—while coming closer and closer to providing customers with exactly what they want.

Lean thinking is exactly what we need in an age of rapid change, rampant disruption, and abundant opportunities. Doing more with less is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity. Understanding and eliminating muda in your life can help immensely.

Muda: Waste in Soda Can Production

Have you ever given much thought to soda can production?

The authors of Lean Thinking did, and it turns out the process is full of muda waste:

More than 99 percent of the time the value stream is not flowing at all: the muda of waiting. Second, the can and the aluminum going into it are picked up and put down thirty times. From the customer’s standpoint none of this adds any value: the muda of transport. Similarly, the aluminum and cans are moved through fourteen storage lots and warehouses, many of them vast, and the cans are palletized and unpalletized four times: the muda of inventories and excessive processing. Finally, fully 24 percent of the energy-intensive, expensive aluminum coming out of the smelter never makes it to the customer: the muda of defects (causing scrap).

In a very real sense, the product that you’re buying when you buy a can of soda is the aluminum can. It just happens to come with some fizzy sugar water in it.

“The simplest way to think about this situation is that a can of cola is very small and cola is consumed by the individual customer in small amounts, yet all of the apparatus used to make cola and get it to the customer is very large, very hard to change over, and designed to operate efficiently at very high speeds,” the authors write.

However, what appears to be efficient to individual companies along the stream—for example, purchase of one of the world’s fastest canning machines, operating at fifteen hundred cans per minute, to yield the world’s lowest fill cost per can—may be far from efficient when indirect labor (for technical support), upstream and downstream inventories, handling charges, and storage costs are included. Indeed, this machine may be much more expensive than a smaller, simpler, slower one able to make just what the next firm down the stream needs (Tesco in this case) and to produce it immediately upon receipt of the order rather than shipping from a large inventory.

The soda can example illustrates a very important quality of lean thinking: It’s counterintuitive. We’ve been trained to think that bigger is better or more efficient when lean thinking trains us to seek agility.

Making a soda can just in time, right when a customer downstream needs it, might not be as efficient on the whole as creating giant batches of aluminum cylinders. But the latter strategy requires near-perfect predictions—about supply, about demand, about the future—that are simply impossible for human beings to forecast with precision.

In practice, batch thinking compensates by creating inventory, a fancy MBA word for storing spare/extra parts. The practice of inventorying is expensive and challenging to manage in its own right. In a lean world, there’s never any soda cans waiting anywhere for someone to do something with them—they only exist when they need to exist.

That brings us to the two major types of muda.

What Is Muda? The Two Types of Muda

The muda definition Womack and Jones in Lean Thinking devise centers around perceived customer value. They sort every product-making, product-ordering, and design action into three categories:

(1) those which actually create value as perceived by the customer; (2) those which create no value but are currently required by the product development, order filling, or production systems (Type One muda) and so can’t be eliminated just yet; and (3) those actions which don’t create value as perceived by the customer (Type Two muda) and so can be eliminated immediately.

This muda definition or rubric is impressive in its flexibility—it can be applied to nearly every system, including your personal life.

Remember that in terms of lifestyle design, you are both the designer and end user of your life.

Type Two muda in the context of your personal life means anything that you’re currently doing that yields no fulfillment. So why are you doing it? The second kind of muda, Type Two muda, can and should be eliminated immediately. They bring no value to anybody.

This may mean obligations, relationships, or career duties that no longer make sense for you—the idea is to remember that you can opt out.

But what about the wasteful activities you may be engaging in that are still necessary to maintain your lifestyle? Type One muda is, in some respects, the harder of the two types of muda to correct. But the key here is to continuously improve your processes.

Oil changes, laundry, food preparation, and the like can all be outsourced, automated, and eliminated to varying degrees in order to free up your time for higher-value activities.

As an example of this thinking in action, the authors of Lean Thinking take a look at the muda of buying a car:

Whenever we drive by a car dealer our first thought is always the same: “Look at all that muda, the vast lot of cars already made which no one wants.” Similarly, when we see the large banner out in front offering “rebates” off list prices and “specials” on service and parts, we wonder, “Why did the dealer order cars and service parts which aren’t needed, and why did the factory build cars and parts in advance of customer pull?”

The unresponsiveness of mass-production car makers is partly to blame. “Out of fear of losing sales to ‘impulse purchasers,’ mass producers create vast seas of cars on dealer lots, one of practically every specification, so no buyer need walk away unsatisfied,” write the two authors.

But the problem is also with us, the consumers:

Dealers love to “deal” and public loves a “sale.” … Changing the way retailers and consumers think about the process of ordering goods and making transactions may be difficult, but as we will see, it is essential to doing things a better way.

It would be far better for both sides of the transaction to pull value from the stream, instead of the car manufacturer pushing it onto the public.

The car makers and the distributors and the dealers would have more predictability, less inventory cost, and better customer service.

We as consumers would be less likely to succumb to impulse buys and bad spending habits that lead to ruined agility.

We’d be better off doing the bulk of our car buying from home—researching specific models of cars, talking to other car owners, reading reviews, scheduling test drives—and then simply soliciting the best offers from various car dealers and accepting the best one.

In fact, some intrepid lifestyle designers outline exactly how to do that here.

Final Thoughts: Much of “Craft” Is Muda

What Is Muda? Porsche Manufacturing Example

Photo Credit: elanbeat via Compfight cc


In some ways, the message of lean thinking can be harsh.

Porsche learned this the hard way when their workforce made the transition to lean enterprise:

Both the workforce and the union were initially quite upset at the affront to, respectively, their competence and their role. The lean message was that the traditional craftsmanship was mostly muda: correction of mistakes which should never have been made, movement to find parts and tools which should be immediately at hand, wasteful motions through a lack of careful analysis of how to do the job, wasted time while watching machines which could be taught to monitor themselves, waiting for missing parts, and inventories everywhere due to batch-and-queue methods.

How much of your workday is dominated by “correction of mistakes which should never have been made”?

How many bad bosses and dysfunctional corporate hierarchies foster “wasteful motions through a lack of careful analysis of how to do the job”?

If any of this is sound like you, take heart. You’re not alone.

Much of what we think of as “craft” or doing your job well, the only way you can do it, is actually waste. It’s muda. It’s refusing to systematize your process when it makes sense and refusing to get organized because you’re a “creative” (“Now where did I put those papers?”).

But for those of you who feel married to your particular idiosyncrasies, realize that there is a higher form of craft:

Fortunately, lean thinking carries a positive message which can redefine craft for a postcraft age. As Porsche employees participated in one improvement activity after another, many began to see that there is a higher form of craft, which is to proactively anticipate problems in a team context and prevent them while constantly rethinking the organization of work and flow of value to remove muda.

What can you do to eliminate muda waste today?

Top Photo Credit: John_X via Compfight cc

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