Applying Lean Methods to Personal Productivity: Identifying Waste

Of all the topics in lean methods and personal productivity, this is where the greatest payoff comes: identifying and removing waste (muda) in our personal work. In this article, we’ll focus on getting the enemy out in the open, and in the next will look at countermeasures.

There is a huge amount of waste in our personal work.[1] How much actual value-adding work are you getting done in a typical day? Most of us in business, especially American business, take pride in the long hours we work, yet how often do we take stock of just how much time is wasted in a typical workday.

Keep in mind that muda is defined as any activity or input that does not add value to the customer. Reducing waste improves our value to the end customer (even if we are our own end customer), and/or lets us spend less time producing that value—so that we can concentrate on having fun.

Lean principles have a long record of accomplishment in manufacturing, and have identified seven traditional sources of muda.[2] While some of these also apply to personal productivity, I think it will be much clearer if we create our own list that applies to personal work rather than try to apply the same definitions. I’ve come up with seven principal sources of waste in daily work—these are my own opinion, so I am sure there is scope for improvement or modification.

Focus: Distractions have to be at the top of this list because there is so much competing you’re your attention at any one time. A survey by found that the average office worker spends 2.09 hours out of an 8-hour day on non-work related activities such as cruising the internet, socializing. That’s 26% of your time, but in reality, the total percentage of time has to be much higher, because of switching costs: it takes time after even a short distraction to get fully up to speed when you get back on task.

Searching: This is probably the second most important source of muda in personal work. According to Daniel Markovitz in A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance, a Wall Street Journal survey of 2600 executives showed that they spend six weeks per year just looking for information. Throw in the time you spend looking for physical things  (pen, a document you need to sign, your car keys) or electronic (files and documents, passwords), and it adds up very quickly.

Prioritization: this is related to insufficient focus, because when you are distracted you are focusing on the wrong priority. Yet it goes beyond distraction; you may be totally focused on something that does not add value. Maybe it’s because something is urgent, and not important. It may be caused by thinking too short-term. (Is it more important to mow the lawn or to plant a tree? That depends on whether your focus is short or long term)

Procrastination: This is related to distraction and prioritization, but it merits its own category because of the reasons behind it. It may be because you find a task to be unpleasant or difficult. It may be simply ingrained habits and routines. The major cost of procrastination, besides merely time wasted, is the possibility of problems festering and growing when they remain unaddressed.

Technique/skill: As someone who spends a significant amount of time banging away at a keyboard, I am woefully inefficient. I’m constantly typing something wrong and going back to fix it. In this paragraph alone, I’ve already had to backspace and fix seven typos. That’s a small example, but I’ll bet if I did a time and motion study, I would find that it adds up to a big chunk of time. On a higher level, As K. Anders Ericsson tells us (the world’s foremost expert on experts), the majority of professionals quickly attain an acceptable, undistinguished level of competence in their field and then level off. How much competence are you leaving on the table?

Knowledge: Not learning enough, or learning too much. In some cases, it’s about incomplete learning. I’m very guilty of this. I read a lot, but if you forget most of what you read, how much of that activity has been wasted? [3]Or how many times have you had a great idea and then forgotten it because you didn’t write it down? On the other hand, you can stuff your head with unnecessary information. There’s no law that says you have to read an entire book cover to cover. Why not skip over the parts that don’t apply to you?

Underutilization: This is the equivalent of throwing away half-squeezed oranges. We also underutilize our own talent and energies. When we don’t plan a sales call or prepare for a meeting, for example, we leave performance on the table. When we don’t delegate, we may be underutilizing the time and skills of other in our network. What about things we own? For example, software—I’ve purchased applications that I’ve not used, or have only used a small subset of the total available features.

This list is obviously incomplete. None of us lack for ingenuity in finding ways to waste our personal productivity. In the next article of this series, we’ll explore countermeasures to these and other sources of personal muda.


[1] Some interesting statistics are found here.

[2] Motion, waiting, conveyance, correction, overprocessing, overproduction, inventory.

[3] I can’t claim perfection here. To show how bad I am, there has been more than one occasion where I’ve come across an interesting book on Amazon and decided to buy it, only to have Amazon remind me that I already bought it a few years ago. Sure enough, I’ll discover that I already read the book.

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