I found some wisdom in a surprising place, on the theme of lean thinking, learning, value, and muda. Ichiro Suzuki is a very successful professional baseball player who at age 44 has played the game for 25 years and intends to play into his 50s if allowed. He made some keen observations in an interview (in Japanese, on YouTube) with retired baseball player and manager of the Japanese national team Atsunori Inaba.
Ichiro’s statement that caught my attention was, “I like the idea that the things we say are muda (a waste of time) are not actually muda (useless).” Waste is in all things. Even in waste, there is value. Muda is not muda. Waste is not waste. To save time, take the longer road. It’s all rather Zen-like.
Ichiro said “Muda is not muda,” in the context of discussing his own growth and development as a player. He told how he would lift weights to bulk up, become more muscular in his upper body. During spring training he felt stiff, his swing was slower. Once he no longer had time during the baseball season to lift weights, he lost the “muda muscle”. With his body back in balance, Ichiro got his swing back at the normal speed. It took Ichiro six or seven years to see the cause and effect, and to adjust his training regimen.
“It is important to understand the body that you are born with and how it works,” he said. Players want to optimize strength and speed. They want to try too many things. Some of these are counterproductive. Ichiro and Inaba agreed that players have too much information. Inaba suggested that among all this information it must be possible to find the shortest path, or optimal way, to develop a player.
Ichiro replied without hesitation, “That is muri. It is impossible. Even if one could arrive at that point without making any mistakes, even if it resulted in a complete ball player, he would lack depth. It is very important to take the long way around.” Too much success early, or success that comes too easily, can leave a person unprepared for challenges later in career or in life.
According to Ichiro, rather than trying to rationalize and optimize, experiencing various things including making mistakes, or “taking the long way around,” can be the best shortcut. Muda is not muda when we use it to learn and get better.
In Japanese, “muda” means useless, uncompensated activity, unwanted, futile, effort that comes to nothing, unnecessary and also waste. Ichiro’s use of the word muda is full of nuance, not simply waste. We can see the value of muda if reexamine the word “waste” in the context of lean management. Here are three definitions of muda.
Definition 1 is effort that goes uncompensated. This is the traditional seven types of waste that result in loss of time and money. Lean aims to minimize this by designing better processes.
Definition 2 is valuable effort that goes unappreciated. Building muscle in the arms, chest and shoulders may be valuable by itself for Ichiro’s health, strength, attractiveness and fitness. By itself, there is no way it is a waste. However, towards his aim to become a better baseball player, that muda muscle did not contribute. When we make extra efforts to please our customers, our family or friends but this effort goes unappreciated, a perfectly good product, gift or party can be a waste. We can minimize this by doing our best to understand customer requirements, but humans can be fickle.
Definition 3 waste is muda that is necessary for our development. This is what Ichiro means when he says taking the long way around is the shortest way. For example, we might say that the act of creating defective product is obviously a waste to be avoided. But is it useless? If we can learn and become much better at making good products or at preventing similar mistakes, we can find great value in the muda of defects. The short-term cost of the defect is merely “tuition” we pay to learn and achieve higher value.
In life, nothing is muda if we continue to learn and improve.