Eliminating Waste from Product Development

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-26-21

Waste is insidious. No matter what plateau of performance we are able to reach, waste creeps back into our work in often imperceptible ways. It’s not just that waste hurts our productivity and our profits, but it squeezes out good work, whether value-adding work or other worthwhile endeavors such as learning and collaboration. Furthermore, waste is frustrating to those in the work who must wrestle with in a losing battle. 

In product development, waste is hard to identify and sometimes even hard to eliminate. But the damage is done here is because product development often requires open, divergent, and creative thinking work, that “space” for creativity can be squeezed out quite quickly if you don’t get, and keep, a handle on the waste. 

Driving out waste requires both the identification and elimination of waste. The latter requires that you build systems, standards, and capabilities so that employees have a common answer to this question: “when you experience waste, what do you do?” If employees don’t have an answer to that, then of course your balance of waste will continue to grow. 

To eliminate waste, you first must identify it. Lean Product Development, as a body of knowledge, is often too focused on the high-level architecture of how you execute product development. These changes, ranging from set-based design to installing Chief Engineers, are great changes, but also can distract us from the day-in, day-out work where much waste exists. If your version of lean includes improvements from every person, every day, then those aren’t the type of changes that most employees can invoke to improve their work. 

Therefore, to drive waste out of our work in product development, we cannot only work at the systems level. At the systems level, we might be at the portfolio or program level. We should also be working at the team level and the individual level. How can a team drive waste out of their collective and collaborative work? And how can an individual working in a product drive waste out of their work? 

Here are some examples, for each level (system, team, individual) for each of the 7 types of waste of TIMWOOD (Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Overproduction, Overprocessing, and Defects). 

The waste of Transportation involves any excess movement of materials or information: 

  • Systems: the distribution of materials can often be filled with the waste of transportation, especially if you depend on outsources and/or lowest-price prototype suppliers rather than building your prototyping system for speed 
  • Team: resources handing off shared materials or tools to each other 
  • Individual: any hand carrying of materials or information 

The waste of Inventory is too much “stuff”, whether materials, tools, information, projects or tasks: 

  • Systems: holding too many projects “in process” in your portfolio can increase switching costs and bottleneck shared resources resulting in all projects moving more slowly 
  • Team: too many tasks held in the queue can lead to poor prioritization and potential task-switching costs 
  • Individual: multiple started but unfinished tasks can lead to delay, switching costs, and even defects 

The waste of Motion is any extra human effort, ranging from walking to additional keystrokes: 

  • Systems: adding people to manage the “space” between projects, such as shared resources and other reporting requirements can be a systemic waste of motion 
  • Team: needing to gather to collaborate across the team, especially when across different functions but still on a team, can be a waste of motion when compared to a co-located team of resources 
  • Individual: converting information that already exists in one place into reports that can be shared outside of the project, usually “up” the org chart 

The waste of Waiting can be any waiting, whether an individual waiting, the project, or the customer: 

  • Systems: the market or customer waits for delivery of a new product or feature because the pipeline is too full and new ideas can’t be delivered quickly 
  • Team: waiting for other team members to complete a task before you can begin a task, especially when the completion is unknown or lacks transparency 
  • Individual: tasks wait to be completed because you keep picking up new tasks to start rather than finishing what’s in process 

The waste of Overproduction is producing more than your immediate customer needs, or producing it sooner than is needed: 

  • Systems: starting projects too soon can lead to them backing up in front of bottlenecks
  • Team: making decisions too soon, before you need to “close the door” on an idea and before all the information is available, can lead to mistakes, suboptimal decisions, or rework 
  • Individual: jumping ahead on tasks that aren’t yet needed can result in rework if there are changes or could even lock you into a suboptimal outcome 

The waste of Overprocessing is doing more than your customer needs: 

  • Systems: adding pet products to the portfolio that sound good, and even interesting, but the market doesn’t actually want or need them 
  • Team: designing features into your project that the customers don’t want, consuming resources, and maybe even delaying the release 
  • Individual: performing unnecessary tests on a product that don’t advance your knowledge or confidence 

The waste of Defects is any error that occurs, whether resulting in bad outcomes or rework required to correct it: 

  • Systems: launching new products into the market that fail to meet customer expectations
  • Team: failure to communicate parameters / specs / priorities leads to redesign cycles 
  • Individual: failure to get your next tested prototype to the required level, resulting in a missed opportunity to learn what you needed 

Waste exists at all of these levels and must be identified and eliminated. Tremendous gains in product development can be achieved if all of those involved in the work have a shared interest in the identification and elimination of waste. Do not think that you’ll grab the “big” elements of lean product development and all of the waste will disappear. You need a concerted and continued effort at all levels of the work. 


Here are more posts about lean product development:

Trust in Product Development

Generating Knowledge Through Lean Product Development

The Value of Building Granularity into Product Development

The Value of Cadence in Product Development

The Value of Transparency in Product Development