In lean thinking we say there are three undesirable conditions related to any work: waste, variability and overburden. In Japanese they are muda, mura and muri. Of the three, waste is often the main focus of continuous improvement activity. It is easier in many ways to identify and to remove waste than the other two. TIMWOOD is a common abbreviation of the wastes of transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, (over) processing, and defects. The majority of any a period of time doing work can be classified in one of these categories. The smaller part of the work we do is value-added work that customers want from us. The longer and more complex the process, the more this is true.
Variability, or out-of-control variation, is the second undesirable condition. The outputs for any value-added process may vary. When variation is outside of desired boundaries, the results is processing waste, overproduction, waiting, etc. When product quality deviates from required specifications, it is a defect. Even when quality varies within allowed tolerances, it can create problems in terms of customer perception. Most variability issues related to process outputs resolve themselves as instances of waste. This is fairly simple and straightforward, and has been the domain of quality control teams, kaizen and six sigma for years.
When the inputs to a process or system are variable, the problems are magnified. These can be customer tastes and demands, product or service mix, or macroeconomic and regulatory environments. These problems manifest at the system level and are more troublesome because this variability can only really be controlled or accounted for in the choices we make in designing delivery systems. Some variability remains outside of our ability to control, and the choice is to either deal with a level of variation or not deal with it by walking away from that customer or market. When we attempt to control the uncontrollable, there is overburden. It is not always practical or possible to hit the pause button, reflect on the causes of variation, start an A3 and chip away at the roots. Sometimes we just grind through.
Overburden is surprisingly broad in its application. Projects can be overburdened with too many deliverables, a scope that is too broad, or timelines that are unreasonable. A snow cone machine can be overburdened by shoving too much ice into the grinding hopper, cause it to seize up. A business can expand too rapidly, creating unsustainable burdens on cash flow, customer service and quality of delivery. A person can be overburdened physically and mentally anytime they are asked to do more than they are capable of doing for extended periods of time. When we monitor only the results and not the processes, it can appear that good things come from people, machines, and teams working extra long and hard hours. When we learn to monitor and measure process KPI, we begin to see that much of the burden and waste comes from variability. This can be not controlling the controllable variation such as project scope creep, not removing silos to communication which create misunderstanding and stress, not providing adequate staffing or tools in order to meet short-term cost targets at the expense of the long-term.
In the world of athletic training, there is an expression, “No pain, no gain.” It is not possible to increase our endurance and build larger, faster and stronger muscles without causing enough burden as to break down muscle fibers. When we train, we are teaching our bodies that in the future, we will need to bear greater burdens in order to survive. With proper rest and nutrition, our bodies rebuild them stronger. When we don’t provide adequate rest and nutrition, not only do we not become better athletes, performance deteriorates. Taken to extremes, training to the point of failure without recovery overburdens our bodies to the point of damage. If we train so hard that we break our bones, we lose the opportunity to train and perform while we heal.
While we want less of the overburden that creates waste, at times people and systems may benefit from overburden followed by proper rest, reflection and recovery. There are times when we need to grind through variability, unstable projects or unreasonable customers, in order to create something new, learn what it takes, and gain a foothold on a new level of performance. The tricky thing about overburden at work is that professional trainers have not yet made a science of just how much burden-at-work-pain is reasonable in order to make a business-result-gain, accounting also for overburden leading to burnout and its losses. I suspect that building mental capacity, resilience and character through “no pain, no gain” on-the-job training for knowledge workers is much more nuanced and complex than bodybuilding. There are encouraging signs that the younger generations place increasing value not only on profits but how they are made. Resolving that false dichotomy is a challenge worth grinding through.