Communication & Transport Waste

In his book on the Toyota production system Taiichi Ohno writes that the preliminary step toward applying the system is to identify wastes completely and proceeds to list seven types of waste:

  • Waste of overproduction
  • Waste of time (waiting)
  • Waste in transportation
  • Waste of processing
  • Waste of inventory
  • Waste of movement
  • Waste of defects

As I thought about these seven wastes and what their corollaries might be in an information economy one in particular stood out to me. Ohno refers to “waste in transportation”. In an information economy we transport fewer and fewer atoms and more and more bits and ideas.

This may be the key waste faced by nearly every organization staffed with information workers. We often call this “transport of ideas” by another name: communication.

We design processes, architect our buildings, and invent technology to facilitate communication. And we are right to do so—the importance of communication is unarguable. But so is its difficulty.

Consider for a moment a very basic communication model:

  1. Sender has an idea
  2. Sender encodes the idea into a message
  3. Message is transmitted via a channel
  4. Recipient decodes message
  5. Receiver has meaning (idea)
  6. Receiver provides feedback to sender

Also consider that the idea is both conceived and decoded within a context.

The opportunities for data loss are staggering. It’s hard to ensure our signal is received. Even the act of sending a signal could be a sign of waste. So how do we reconcile the need to communicate with the risk it implies?

In the world of manufacturing transportation is generally caused by moving raw materials to a factory and finished goods to the customer. Centralized production results in products manufactured thousands of miles from where they are needed.

Reducing this form of waste can be achieved by:

  • Sourcing raw materials locally
  • Distributing production facilities
  • Carefully managing internal transportation by reducing wait time and inventory

Some Lean experts take these same concepts and apply them literally to information workers (as atoms). They look to reduce travel; instead employing technology such as video conferencing, digital white boards, and collaborative documents. I would argue this is a misunderstanding of what is being transported (bits). We should be less concerned about the waste inherent in transporting people and more concerned with the waste inherent in transporting ideas.

People are relatively easy to move, ideas less so. The expense of physical transportation is much lower than the potential losses at risk with lower-quality communication.

Here are a few strategies for reducing communication waste:

  • Consider your channel carefully—every channel (email, phone, video) has bandwidth constraints, latency issues, etc.
  • Co-locate as often and for as long as possible to shorten the communication loop and increase the frequency of feedback
  • Communicate redundantly—in person we use voice, tone, expression, physical cues, and more to improve reception
  • Reduce the size of the ideas being communicated to decrease the risk of data loss and reduce WIP

All of these may seem obvious but it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that because it’s obvious it’s easy. As Ted Widmer pointed out recently to Ira Glass on This American Life, communication is easy, almost too easy.

I think it's so easy to communicate that there's almost no reason to communicate anything of interest, you know? It's become like breathing. And if you listen to cell phone conversations on the train, it's always just, you know, monosyllables. Like hi, I'm here. Or I'll be there at 5:19 instead of 5:18. And it's the most boring verbiage you'll ever hear. Listen to someone else talking into their cell phone.

This ease of communication can cause us to take the transportation of ideas for granted and fail to see it for the important part it plays in modern business.