Lean Principle #1 – Eliminate Waste

Get insights in your inbox

Lean software development advocates 7 lean principles, the first of which is Eliminate Waste‘.

Sounds obvious really. How many people came to work today to spend their time on waste? Some maybe! But not most. So what is waste, and how do you identify it?

Some waste is obvious. But other forms of waste are more difficult to spot or to solve. I’m sure in most organisations it’s sometimes very difficult to identify what is waste and what is not. Some processes or conventions might seem wasteful, but actually provide real value elsewhere in the organisation, or prevent other forms of waste from emerging later. Other activities may seem valuable, but actually do not really result in any real value.

As I mentioned in my opening post about the 7 Key Principles of Lean Software Development, lean development originated from lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System in Japan. In these methods, they identified 3 general forms of waste, which they called in Japanese – ‘Muda‘ (meaning unproductive), ‘Mura‘ (unevenness, inconsistency) and ‘Muri‘ (over-burden, unreasonableness).

In doing this, they also identified 7 particular types of waste in manufacturing:

  1. Over-production
  2. Unnecessary transportation
  3. Inventory
  4. Motion
  5. Defects
  6. Over-processing
  7. Waiting

In lean software development, Tom and Mary Poppendieck translated these wastes into some things more specifically relevant to software development. For instance:

  • unnecessary code or functionality
  • starting more than can be completed
  • delay in the software development process
  • unclear or constantly changing requirements
  • bureaucracy
  • slow or ineffective communication
  • partially done work
  • defects and quality issues
  • task switching

A common agile development practice is the ‘retrospective’, which is the process of the team meeting after each short iteration to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and what could be done differently in the next iteration.

This iterative process of learning and continual improvement is an important part of identifying waste and eliminating it. In my experience this is one of the key benefits of agile software development.

Traditional software development and project management methods advocate a ‘lessons learnt’ process, but it generally takes place at the end of a project. By this time, things are forgotten, people have changed, the context has changed, and the team may be disbanding to move on to another project. As a result, the team may never really get a chance to put these learnings and changes into practice.

With agile development, these retrospectives enable the team to make small improvements regularly, and tackle changes in manageable, bite-sized pieces that can be actioned immediately.

Identifying and eliminating waste should not be a rare event conducted by process re-engineering consultants every few years. It should be a regular process, built into regular iterations, determined as much as possible by the team, and tackled in small, timely steps.

Making improvements little-but-often in this way creates a culture of continuous improvement – a learning environment – which for some organisations could potentially give you the edge over competitors.

So if you’re not doing it already, I urge you to hold regular retrospectives. This is one agile development practice I can heartily recommend. Try to foster lively but healthy debate, critical but constructive feedback, and try to drive out meaningful and actionable improvements that actually help you to frequently identify and, more importantly, eliminate waste.


7 Key Principles of Lean Software Development:

1. Eliminate Waste
2. Build Quality In
3. Create Knowledge
4. Defer Commitment
5. Deliver Fast
6. Respect People
7. Optimise The Whole