How do you define waste?

WasteLow hanging fruit…you’ve heard it before. When you are trying to get your organization started down the sustainability path, consultants and authors tell you to reach for the low hanging fruit. They want you to succeed, so they point you in the direction of quick wins. For many of them your waste stream is one of the first places they encourage you to look, and by waste stream they are referring to what you place in a dumpster. They talk about examining what it is that you are placing into the dumpster. They want you to be able to identify the items that you are throwing away and re-think how they got there. This is something you should do, but lately I’ve had several companies remark when I was introduced to them as the guy that is going to help us identify waste reduction measures say, “Oh, you’re the guy who is going to start our recycling program.” In my head, I’m thinking, “Oh, if it were only that easy!”

Granted, waste management is a key component of sustainability. Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston listed it as one of the top ten environmental issues facing us today in their book, Green to Gold. It’s not just ensuring that we legally and properly manage our waste that is important, it is ensuring that we work to reduce and eliminate our waste. Not just the things that are going into the dumpster, but also the waste that is occurring within our organization.

Now we get to one of the most interesting parts of sustainability, Change Management, working with others to help them develop a new way of thinking about business and their processes, and exposing them to the new possibilities  that are available through the development of a new mindset.

The first change is to help your organization redefine what they mean by waste and develop programs and initiatives that will help them reduce and eliminate those wastes. I’m talking about much more than starting a recycling program in the breakroom.

Before you start you need to expand your definition of “Waste”. It’s not just for the dumpster anymore.  Years ago Taiichi Ohno, considered by some to be the father of the Toyota Production System, defined seven categories of “Muda“, a traditional general Japanese term for an activity that is wasteful and doesn’t add value or is unproductive.


The Manufacturing Institute

Ohno’s 7 Wastes :

  1. Transport : Movement of materials is a waste. Minimize the amount of movement by arranging processes in close proximity to each other.
  2. Inventory : Too little inventory can lose sales, too much inventory can hide problems. Aim for “Just in Time” (JIT) manufacturing to expose problems to be eliminated and reduce cost.
  3. Motion : Remove unnecessary motion of the operations and improve the ergonomics of the workplace.
  4. Waiting : Minimize waiting time and maximize “value adding” time. Aim for a smooth flow.
  5. Overproduction : Always aim to make exactly what the customer orders, just in time, to the correct quality standard.
  6. OverProcessing : Use machines which are of an appropriate capacity and capable of achieving the required quality standard.
  7. Defects : Reducing the number of defects directly reduces the amount of waste. Aim for zero defects.

From these definitions you can see that waste means more than just garbage in a dumpster. Ray Anderson, in his latest book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, writes that “The greenest Dumpster is the one you never fill.” He goes on to write, that through 2008, the fourteen-year cumulative total of costs avoided by attacking waste was $405 million. Not bad for a carpet company that took the time to redefine what they meant by “waste”.

However, there is another dimension of sustainability that moves beyond the simple waste of your manufacturing or operating process. This portion of sustainability involves the most important part of your organization, your people.

Chauncey Bell a U.S.-based business management consultant, identified five new waste in his blog post:

1. Not Listening: Tolerating working together in conditions in which people do not and often cannot effectively speak and listen to each other.

2. Bureaucratic Styles: Working together bureaucratically, undertaking to design and produce our work through sterile procedures — sequences of movements and activities — in which our concerns show up at best only briefly before and after the work, but not during it.

3. Worship of Information: Orienting ourselves, our actions and our attention around information and information systems, valuing “data” and “measures” above the interpretations of the human beings in the enterprise.

4. Suppressing Innovation: Tolerating ways of working in which people, ideas, and practices that are different, unusual, or new are avoided, feared, or rejected, so that it becomes all but impossible to develop flexibility and evolve practices for dealing with a changing world.

5. Work as Toil: Tolerating the interpretation that work consists fundamentally of unrelenting sequences of “things to do” that have only commercial value, we invent a kind of ‘modern indentured servitude.’ We sell ourselves into service in exchange for money and fleeting “real” lives available to us outside of working hours, outside of work.

So, hopefully now you can see that sustainability really does mean more than just starting a recycling program. It also means more than just simply looking at your environmental activities. Sustainability involves people, processes, products and policies. If you are going to seriously move down this path you have to make sure that you and your team understand that this is a multi-discipline, multi-prong activity that can truly change your organization if you’re ready.

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