In Japan, it's called 'muda'--those useless, wasteful actions that add nothing of value to your processes or your organization. Muda (pronounced moo-dah) are those hours spent waiting for someone else to complete their part of a task, or rushing to complete a project that ends up being put on the back burner or, worse, never used at all. Muda are those impulsive decisions that leadership makes to get past the hurdle of the moment without taking time to consider how they impact the bigger picture.
How do you distinguish muda tasks from those tasks that are actually producing value? By asking yourself one question:
Is this action fulfilling--or helping to fulfill--a customer or business need that hasn't been met?
Over the past four years, I've informally polled clients to find out how many of their emails are muda. The surprisingly consistent reply was around 80 percent. Muda can be found in excessive communication or the lack of it, in overproduction, in hasty actions that cause complications down the road, and in the overall waste of time and talent. Toyota--a big proponent of muda elimination--has been said to use the acronym "DOWNTIME" for the eight most common forms of waste:
D: Defective production
O: Over production
N: Non-used employee talent
E: Excessive processing
Any action that doesn't fulfill the needs of the customer or business, then, should be eliminated. But what if you're not exactly clear on the needs of your customers and business? Muda is easier to spot when you're up against a deadline, or if you have few resources available to you. Where it becomes harder to identify is when you or your organization lacks focus and/or has access to abundant resources. The key to achieving this clarity is in creating a state that's unnatural for a group to maintain--the state of cohesion.
Establishing and Sustaining Cohesion
Cohesion must exist for any group to accomplish any task effectively, but it's also one of the most difficult states to sustain. Cohesion only exists if everyone in your team can give the same answers to the following three questions:
1. Where are we starting?
2. Where are we going?
3. What do we have to do to get there?
Consider the following simple team building exercise: Collect at least 25 random items (the more, the better) and place them in the middle of the room. Then break your team members into groups and have each group describe and categorize the objects in the pile.
Chances are that they'll not only categorize the objects differently, but they'll also have different types of categorizations and perhaps even different names for each of the objects. They may not even identify the situation in the same way--are they working as a team, nominating a leader, letting each person create their own list, arguing over who makes the calls?
Cohesion, if not actively maintained, disintegrates. If the groups were told what the categories were and everyone agreed to use the same process to log the items, then the exercise would have been completed much more accurately and in far less time.
If the focus of your organization is not clear or if the people on your team are not aiming for the same goal and do not understand exactly what resources are available to them, then muda becomes inevitable; focus fragments, energy dissipates, and the work environment becomes ripe for conflict.
Does everyone in your group know where your organization stands? Do you all have the same goal and the same idea of how to get there? It's in people's nature to work on different activities for different reasons and at different intensities, so fragmentation is inevitable. But you and your organization should always be invested in establishing and maintaining cohesion.
Cut Out the 'Muda' and Focus
Cutting out the non-value added muda activities and focusing on an agreed upon way to reach a common goal--are the quickest ways to cut down on wasted time. As you set out on your day-to-day ventures, if you and your team are all looking in the same direction and rowing together, not only are you going to reach your goal faster and with less wasted effort, it's also going to make for a much more pleasant voyage.