Ambiguity of expected outcomes generates unneeded waste

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-22-14

“Clean your room”

“I did”

“It doesn’t look like it”

Did they or did they not accomplish the task? It depends on who you ask because there are differences in the expected outcome. One person’s version of “clean” and another’s version are different.

Ambiguity in outcome expectations, whether for a small task or an entire process, leads to waste generation.

Here’s an example. As many of you know, I travel a lot. I’ve achieved some level of preferred status in 3 or 4 different hotel chains, and as a result I get to see a lot of the differences in how they operate. Most chains have clearly defined expected outcomes for processes such as room cleaning and check-in. As an outcome, I get the same result at a Courtyard in Oregon that I do at a Courtyard in Florida.

PhotoRecently, in a non-chain hotel, I had an experience that was both unique and baffling. First, I noticed that the glass of water I almost finished wasn’t discarded. Instead, they left the last sip of water and just put a coaster on top of the glass as a form of cap. I was confused. Then I turned around and saw my running shoes which had been thrown in the corner. Not only were they placed neatly side by side, which I understood, but the laces had been tied. They tied my shoes…without my feet in them. Now I was baffled. How did this benefit me? What kind of standard would have the housekeeping crews tie my shoes?

But then I realized…there was no standard. There was probably an ambiguous statement, something like “provide each guest a level of service above and beyond their expectations” or something that sounds really, really good. But at the same time, that so-called standard provides no clarity for what successful accomplishment looks like. If you asked someone “how do you know that you’re doing a good job?”, could they answer that question clearly?

I was observing a team clearing brush away from a railway line. There was a standard, or expected outcome, of how far back they should clear. However, there was no means to compare the result to the expected result. If you look back across their work, sometimes they were too close, likely leading to future rework, and sometimes they cut back far too much, which greatly reduced their productivity. Having a clear expected outcome is not enough. You also have to define a means to evaluate whether or not you are successfully meeting that expected outcome. To my opening room cleaning example, this would be the equivalent to “I’ll tell you when you’re done” because the person can’t self-evaluate successful completion.

The lack of clearly defined outcomes generates tremendous waste. How often have you put time into a report or presentation only to find out it didn’t meet the expectation? Maybe you didn’t do enough, and now you have rework. Possibly worse, you did more than was expected, and the extra invested time cannot be reclaimed.

Every process needs a clearly defined outcome. Without it, you cannot manage and you cannot improve.


  • All too familiar scenarios, but how are these situations addressed – practically? There might be a parallel here with your example of the report submission and the necessity and relevance of the standards needed to meet task and process expectations i.e. how much time and effort should be spent in creating standard work (and how detailed should it be) before it outweighs the benefits to the process itself? As with most things in life – it’s a balance – but inevitably a hard one to always get right.

    Tony Stevens January 23, 2014 at 8:24 am
  • Tony, I have two responses. Yes, you need a balance. But first, based on my observations, we’re far from the pendulum swinging too far the other direction. Expected outcomes are too often ambiguous, and I find many people having no idea whether they are meeting expectations or not.

    Second, often people thing of standards in only one form: bureaucracy. There are many ways to create a standard that make the outcome clear. The white line at a stop sign sets a clear expectation, with no bureaucracy, about where you should be stopping. The same example applied to a high performance organization, a F1 or NASCAR pit crew will put pieces of tape on the ground about where they should stand when the car is entering the pits. The key is, how can we communicate what is expected, whether outcome or method, as simply as possible.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh January 23, 2014 at 9:40 am