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The Problem with Creative Work and Creative Management

Jim Womack
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Years ago I heard a presentation from someone at Toyota explaining where to begin in implementing the Toyota Production System. “Start by analyzing the work to be done.” This meant listing all the actions required to create the value in a given product and then dividing these actions into three categories:

  • value-creating work. Activities adding directly to the value of the product as determined by the customer. (Manufacturing examples are painting the product or adding parts during assembly.) A simple test is to ask whether customers would mind if this work was not done but their product still performed properly. If they would mind, it is value creating. For example, almost all customers expect their products to be painted with all the parts assembled, so these steps are value creating.
  • Incidental work. Activities that are currently necessary to create a product for a customer but which have no value to the customer. Examples include handling materials, clamping fixtures to hold the work, and returning kanban cards. No customer ever bought a product and offered to pay more because the kanban were all returned to the scheduling point!
  • Waste. Activities that create no value and can be completely eliminated. Examples include rework, storing items between work steps, and searching for missing materials. No customer anywhere wants to pay for these activities and there is no need for them to be done if lean principles are fully applied.

Categorizing the existing steps is a great way to start lean thinking, and it’s pretty easy in a factory environment when drawing a value-stream map. But when lean thinkers move beyond the factory, as many are doing today, it’s easy to get confused about the nature of work. In particular, in any office environment and in healthcare, maintenance, overhaul, retail, and other production environments not involving factories, many employees and managers tell me that they are doing “creative work.” They state that the outcome of each step is unpredictable, that steps may need to change with each new product, and that work can’t be clearly planned. Therefore they can’t easily list the steps they will need to take to produce a given result. And, from their perspective, most of the steps they are currently taking are value creating, not incidental work or Waste.

However, as I observe their work I usually see something very different. A few situations really do require creative modifications in the middle of the process – the patient who has a heart attack during a routine appendectomy – but most non-factory work is actually transactional. That is, the same steps need to be performed the same way every time to get a good result and most activities fit into clear product families that are performed over and over. The standard appendectomy, the monthly closing of the books, the D check (heavy maintenance) on a 747.

The reason the work appears to be “creative” is because product families are not clearly identified, none of the steps are clearly defined, and many of the support processes needed to successfully perform each step are lacking. For example, the needed instruments or drugs for the next step in a medical procedure are missing so the doctor, nurse, or technician goes “treasure hunting” to find them. What appears to the employees as mostly value-creating work with a bit of incidental work appears to me as a small amount of value-creating work, a bit of incidental work, and an enormous amount of Waste.

But this is not all the Waste I see. Looking one level back from the point of primary work, I see armies of managers running madly to unkink holdups in the process. Many of their work-arounds are indeed “creative.” But does the customer really want to pay for management interventions (that is, for rework) in processes that would not require any intervention if properly designed? Surely these are all examples of creativity we can do without and it’s a shame that so few employees and managers notice that in many cases creativity and rework are the same thing.

Please do not misunderstand: There is truly creative work to be done every day. For example, finding an ingenious new way to design a product that no one has thought of before. But this is a very small fraction of total work and most of what bears the label “creative work” is actually pure Waste.

By contrast the truly creative act that all of us should perform as employees and managers is to fundamentally rethink the processes we operate and manage so that product families are identified, steps are precisely specified and standardized, and Waste is eliminated while incidental work is minimized. But even here we need to use the standard process of value-stream mapping with A3 analysis. This is the real role for creativity at work.

Best regards,


Jim Womack
President and Founder
Lean Enterprise Institute

P.S. We will be showing the path toward Waste-free work at LEI’s Business process Summit in Boston on June 8-10. We will present examples from a wide range of office environments and from healthcare, maintenance, insurance, military, overhaul, and retail operations making creative leaps to rethink their business processes. These firms are eliminating incidental work and Waste while cutting costs and response times to serve their customers better. At the same time they are improving the job satisfaction for their employees and boosting their financial performance. I’ll make an introductory presentation to frame the issues and lead the concluding panel to summarize what we have learned. You can find the details by clicking on the Summits tab at www.lean.org. I hope I will see many members of the Lean Community in Boston.

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