Weighing the Waste of Waiting

By Jon Miller Updated on February 8th, 2016


TIMWOOD is a mnemonic, or memory aid, for reciting the seven types of waste that lean aims to reduce. At its geographic if not spiritual center is W – waiting. This indicates time people spent unproductively while waiting for someone, something or a triggering event. It is typically viewed as less harmful as the other wastes such as defects, inventory, overproduction, over-processing, transportation or motion because when waiting, we are not actively doing something harmful like creating defects or converting cash, material and energy into inventory.

We need to reassess the weight of waiting waste when it comes to knowledge work. Typically the cost of a knowledge worker’s time is more expensive, and often the output has higher value than manual work or unskilled service work. While idle manual workers stand out visually due to their lack of action, it is not always possibly to identify when knowledge workers are experiencing the waste of waiting. A common habit is to open multiple tasks while waiting. But this is also problematic and can be a cause of errors, overproduction and loss of productivity due to attention-switching losses.

Common way we experience waiting at work is in meetings. We may delay the start meetings, waiting for late arrivals. Or we may start on time and pause to catch any late arrivals, causing other participants to wait. Or we may be in meetings of low value or relevance, waiting for to end. A CBS article cites a recent survey finding that 15% to 20% percent of the U.S. working population is “consistently late”. This rings true from experience, as any meeting with more than 4 participants seems to have at east 1 person arriving late. In my experience it is worse for virtual meetings, more like 30% – 40% of people.

Punctuality expert and author Diana DeLonzer is quoted in the article, “It’s a huge drain on productivity when meetings consistently start 10 or 15 minutes behind, and tardiness has a snowball effect as one person’s lateness affects the productivity of his or her colleagues.” Waiting in one meeting may not be so bad, but knowledge workers may spend a third or even half of their time in meetings, and this number can be more for the highest paid executives. In knowledge work, waiting caused by delays can create a chain reaction of waste.

There are multiple cause for waiting, so multiple countermeasures are required. In the case of meetings, the first step is to figure out why meetings constantly starting or running late. Social reasons include not being able to say no to commitments which include quick chats that slow us down on the way to meetings, to attendance in questionable meetings themselves. Technical reasons include scheduling systems that allow the scheduling of meetings back-to-back requiring instantaneous switching from the end of one to the start of the next meeting. This is a physical impossibility in our universe, unless meetings end early, which they don’t. At a root level is a systematic issue that the totality knowledge work in an organization, with its various dependencies and invisible flow of information, is just not that well planned out.

One containment measure (different from countermeasure in that it may not address root causes but does alleviate some symptoms) is to put more structure around meetings, reducing the freedom for participants to derail the process by being late, unprepared, inattentive or off-topic, basically turning it into more of a business-like and dry process. This might seem counter-intuitive, going against the “respect for people” principle. The aim is not to cut out all human connection, shut down open discussion, or allow for things that make people late. Setting constraints on how we sequence, time and set content for meetings makes them more predictable, and should be part of management’s standard work.

How does your organization recognize and weigh the waste of waiting? “Hey, why are we waiting? Is this a special case or a common behavior? How can we work to reduce it in the future?” Perhaps this topic would make for productive discussion while we wait for late arrivals.

  1. GVRAO

    February 15, 2016 - 3:33 pm

    yeah wait is always first cause of waste. Not only in meetings where people wait for late comers, but also waiting for the decision making, or release of decision to wait for somebody to make the announcement will cause significant loss to the organisation.
    To avoid first one: stick to agenda. will solve many problems like extending hours, topic diversion. Immediate minutes of meeting will avoid waiting time to implement decisions taken in the meeting.

  2. Tomasz

    February 25, 2016 - 2:34 am

    Waiting isn’t just costing money in form of salaries. I will add to it something that we can’t necessarily measure but what can create lots of costs and problems in the long run: people who are punctual, organized and productive (or whole processes for that matter) may become detached and discouraged in their work when forced to constantly wait for other – not so timely people or processes. Allowing this we are risking often the best people to become less happy with their work and might create tension or even hostility between departments.

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