How to eliminate waste to improve your work practices

05 November

One of the big topics people have difficulty digesting when being introduced to agile is the concept of focus. We all have so much to do − too many projects to work on, too many meetings to attend, too many emails to attend to. It is challenging to impossible for some to imagine a world where we can focus on fewer things, and actually achieve more. 

For us to reach the stage where we are less busy and more focused we need to identify those things that create noise in our work areas. Taiichi Ohno from Toyota Production Systems (TPS) coined this term “waste” – meaning the things that simply don’t add value or are no longer required. In this ever-busy world where the demand for our time, goods and services are on the increase, it is vital that we identify those things that don’t add value and get rid of them. 

The seven areas of waste are: 

  1. Overproduction: producing too much.
  2. Excess motion: moving around too much within the process
  3. Waiting: lag time where nothing is being done
  4. Unnecessary processing: additional steps that are not needed
  5. Transportation: items that are moved around unnecessarily
  6. Excess inventory: unfinished work, too much “work in progress”
  7. Defects: imperfections or shortcomings

I will not cover all seven areas of waste but will zoom into three of common areas seen in the workplace, and provide some practical tips on how to eliminate these to improve work practices personally and for the team.


1. Overproduction

Too many meetings too many people, too many topics. 

Meetings are a necessary evil for people to come together to share information, make decisions and provide feedback. Unfortunately, some bad habits of meetings have given this useful practice a bad rap and they are:


a) Inviting the whole world

I have been to project update meetings that have over 20 people in the room and only two hours scheduled for the meeting. Logistically the rooms are never large enough or ventilated enough to accommodate a large group. In addition, the costs of large meetings can be significant; is the result of the meeting generating enough value to make it worth it? I doubt it.

b) Meetings run over time

As a domino effect of having such large meetings, they tend to run over their scheduled time, and not by five minutes, I have seen meetings overrun by more than 30 minutes to an hour or more. This has a knock-on effect to other meetings and planned work.

c) Getting distracted and discussing less important matters

It is human nature to get distracted in meetings and focus on discussing irrelevant points or even points that everyone agrees on (making the discussion a bit redundant) and this consumes most of the meeting time, leaving the most important topics either rushed through when time has run over or dropped until the next meeting.


To eliminate these wasteful meeting habits, you need the following:

A prepared facilitator

A facilitator needs to put in the time in to plan the meeting. During the meeting, keep an eye on the time, encourage participation, ensure there is focus on the priorities (and be brave to park topics that are not priority or where there is an agreement). And most importantly, make sure that sustainable agreements are reached. 


In planning the meeting, because time is in short supply it’s important to prioritise the most vital topics as well as prioritise who needs to attend the meeting that can add value (both these may need input from other parties). 

Another technique for prioritisation is to do this collaboratively in the beginning of the meeting with dot voting. Each participant gets an agreed number of dots to place his or her votes on those topics they believe are most important to discuss. The topics with most dots will be discussed. This is a great tool to empower teams and give them a voice.


Meetings need to start and end on time. If topics are discussed in the order of priority by the people who should be discussing, when the timebox ends, at least you are assured that the most important topics have been addressed. 

You could also add a timer to discussions, as it is too easy for teams to discuss at length. Doing this, and making participants aware of the timer, eventually gets them to be more articulate and less repetitive. Agree with the group how long you should allocate for discussion time per topic and then set the timer. When the timer buzzes you can vote with the group whether they feel the topic has sufficiently been addressed or another round of the timer is needed. 

Timeboxing, with prioritisation, builds trust with people as they can rest assured that the meeting will not be a waste of their time, as well as end on time.


2. Excess motion

Too much task switching where we move from one task to another without completing the first one.

A reason for this may be interruptions or too many things to do or projects on the go that are vying for our attention. 

Research shows that task switching negatively impacts one's performance, I think the figure is around 40%, and I am a good example of this. When I switch tasks without completing the task at hand the following happens; first it takes time for me to remember where I was when returning to the task, this is quite taxing, and then, because of the effort to remember I need to take a break and get a coffee. Then before you know it, a couple of hours may have passed as I get distracted along the way before I actually complete the task. 

A helpful tool to keep focus is a personal Kanban board made visible to you and people around you using post-it notes with To Do, Doing, and Done columns. 

Write up everything you need to do on post-it notes and prioritise them on your board in the “To Do” column, the most important tasks go at the top. Review your priorities at the end of every day as things can change of the course of the day. 

Decide for yourself or within the team how much work you can have in progress at any time, TPS calls this term “Limit WIP” (Work in Progress), we want to limit the amount we have in progress to optimise our productivity and focus. Typically, I can only do one thing at a time, so my WIP is 1. New things can come my way, but they just need to be added to the To Do column, the don’t need to interrupt what I am doing. When I have finished the task, I can pull in a new task from the top of the “To Do” column. 

A key factor to this working is to be diligent with the prioritisation as well as communicating this way of working to the people around you so they are aware. Granted there are times where there are things that crop up that need immediate attention, so there are exceptions to this. 

A Kanban board or Scrum task board, with a prioritised backlog of things the team need to do, is a very effective tool for teams to keep focused an optimise their productivity. 

Some other useful tools for you and team members is to have a visible indicator if you are in the zone for people to know that they shouldn’t to disturb you. Also, turn off notifications on your email and phone and set aside specific times in the day when you will read your email and phone messages.


3. Excess inventory

Too much unfinished work lying around. 

Too much on the go with too much task switching creates a domino effect and leaves a lot of unfinished work. Some of the reasons for this: 

  • Not having enough information when we start
  • Lack of skills
  • Lack of planning our approach to the work
  • Dependencies on other work/people 

We need to be disciplined if we want to truly eliminate waste and focus on value, and that means that we need to give thought to the work that we are going to do before we start so that we can finish it. Agile has a term called Definition of Ready; before any work is started within the team the work is: 

  • Prioritised in order of value, dependency and risk.
  • Understood by the team; they understand the rational and any other details to help them complete the work.
  • Estimated – the team have a sense of how long it will take. 

Making sure that work meets the Definition of Ready ensures that when the team starts to work on a task or piece of work that they can finish it. 

As a project manager, before I was introduced to agile practices, I would push teams to start on work that had too many open assumptions and the result of this was work was never completed properly on time which pushed the team into task switching and put a lot of stress on the team. I have since learnt that it is a waste of time to start work on things that we can’t really start, and it causes challenges with planning. 

Eliminating waste to improve working practices requires that we identify what is causing waste, be intentional about the work that we do and create visibility of that work so we can effectively manage and improve what we do, and the value we want to add.


Post by Nicola Stephens