Reducing Waste and Ignorance
Process and value stream mapping are two of the most effective lean tools—in addition to going to the gemba to see work happen—that I use to try to combat ignorance and see the true state of the matter at hand.
Ignorance is a negative word as often used today and generally gets an emotional response. Very misunderstood. Here is a definition for “ignorant” and one for “ignorance”.
- lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.
- lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.
- uninformed; unaware.
- due to or showing lack of knowledge or training: an ignorant statement.1
- Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and information. The word "ignorant" is an adjective that describes a person in the state of being unaware and can describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts, or individuals who are unaware of important information or facts. Ignorance can appear in three different types: factual ignorance (absence of knowledge of some fact), objectual ignorance (unacquaintance with some object), and technical ignorance (absence of knowledge of how to do something).2
The state of being unaware. This is not a bad or immoral thing. This is the mental state we are all born into. It is what we all have concerning many (most?) things throughout our lives. What do I actually know about the physics of batting a baseball, how GPS works or even what the acronym stands for, how a smartphone can be so smart, how did my lipstick get in the tube, or how do I keep breathing without trying? Ignorance is not bliss, but it’s plentiful and normal.
Ignorance and work
From a lean perspective, ignorance is the state of being unaware of work that happens in our companies. Or more specifically, the state of being unaware of the waste embedded in the work that is performed in our companies. This waste creates extra effort, human burden, and doesn’t match the needs of our customers. And, as long as we remain ignorant, the waste will continue to build.
Our ignorance creates the demand for one of the cornerstones of lean, “continuous improvement with respect for people.” The value-creating opportunity to seek out and embrace what we are unaware of and create an environment for improvement once the opportunity to improve is discovered.
Process and value stream mapping are techniques that create an opportunity to reduce ignorance; usually dramatically so. “When we make work visible for all to see, I will feel relieved. Because our people will rack their brains to find a solution,” said Katsuaki Watanabe, current senior advisor and former CEO of Toyota.
The value stream map shows the interconnections of a company’s functional processes that work flows through (including starts and stops) which are required to deliver a product or service. It removes the blinders between functions and departments so improvement opportunities can be seen. The Process map shows each step every individual takes within a single, defined Process to get work done. The Process map also creates the ability to visualize activity that could reduce human burden, minimize mind numbing work, and improve processes that yield downstream defects. A thorough Process map reveals the true current state, the basis for moving forward with waste reduction. That is, unless someone stands in the way.
Examples from the Gemba
Let me give you an example. I was with a company that brought together purchasing, accounts payable, receiving, and accounting. The team represented three business units and locations in addition to several functions. They had not worked together before, so they were ignorant of each other’s work. They created a swim lane Process map defined as starting at a request for items (inventory and non-inventory) and ending when the payment is sent to the vendor(s).
As you might imagine, if you have done this before, it was a long Process map that included many workers and many steps. And certainly, many more steps than any one individual in the room was aware of. The Process map revealed over five different approval points for any single transaction (request through payment for one item). The Process, despite all the checking, also resulted in errors even at the very last step! No one in the room was ignorant any longer of that Process, and they immediately began defining a future state that was simpler, faster, and reduced errors. They were no longer ignorant, and they eliminated a lot of Process waste.
I guess the moral is that there is nothing wrong with being ignorant. But there is a problem if you become aware of a problem and ignore it!
There is a related problem caused by ignorance that is practiced habitually (and usually unknowingly) by some managers and workers. That is the mindset that you ASSUME you know how work happens, but you really don’t know, and you do not seek to verify or find out the actual current state of the work. Let’s call that “complacent ignorance” brought on by bad assumptions, a basis for an incalculable number of mistakes and bad decisions in the workplace. And, it is a complete roadblock to effective waste reduction.
Let me share another example, again related to how a Process map can help us to see. Two people were mapping the Process for collecting money. One person actually did the work. The other person was her manager. As they were mapping, the collector would say what she did and put it on a sticky note. But every third step or so, the manager would say, “No, you do this next.” This happened repeatedly until I, as the coach asked them, “Who does this work?” They looked at me. I continued, “Let the person doing the work share what they do, and the rest of us will listen and learn. This is how we all can become aware of how the work really happens.”
When we do not realize that we are making and acting on assumptions, and worse, demanding that our assumptions be the basis for decisions, we will remain ignorant of the truth. The waste in our processes may change but waste it will probably remain.
So, maximize improvements by going to gemba with open eyes and ask questions of those doing the work. Then, partner with them to map out the true current state. Now, you and your partners can much more effectively design the future.
As the saying goes, “Truth will set you free.” Or in lean thinking, “Truth will help you see!”
2Wikipedia.org, Nottelmann, Nikolaj. "ignorance." Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi, Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition, 2015
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