The Seven Forms of “Not Waste”

Lean manufacturing has made a really big deal about waste. There’s muda, mura and mudi; You’ve got your Type I and Type II; And of course 7, 8 or maybe 9 forms of it, depending on who you ask. The Inuit words for snow have nothing on the Japanese words for waste.

With such an obsession with waste, you might think Taichi Ono had some kind of childhood trauma associated with it. After reading a few books on Lean, I’m looking for waste everywhere, and I’m starting to think that some kind of trauma has been inflicted on me!

By casting out waste in all its forms, they say, we can create a smooth flow of work across our production system. Remove all variance, they say, and only then can a system truly create value.

In highly deterministic systems, this thinking wins arguments. And we desperately want the systems that deliver software (organizational and technical) to be highly deterministic. But our systems are resistant to analysis that grants determinism – they are synthetic. We embrace the uncertainty, adjust for instability, and renounce absolutism.

So instead of trying to come up with deterministic categories of things that ARE waste, maybe it makes sense to think more about things that are NOT waste. Things like,

  1. Running experiments: It’s really hard to run experiments in an active manufacturing line – that would result in a lot of waste. But fortunately for you, code is (relatively) free. We can start all our work with a hypothesis and validate it. Got it wrong? Try again. The reality is that every increment of value begins with experiments (whether you know it or not). But people get confused by this – they think that spending the time to see something running in the system is not value-adding … instead of 2 weeks to see what it looks like, we should spend 4 weeks writing specs? This might seem crazy (because it is), yet people still do it. 
  1. Writing code: Sometimes the hardest thing to do is get started. Procrastination. Trepidation. But fear not! Just write the code! Try it out. See what happens. Run the experiments. In software, arguments don’t win arguments, working code wins arguments. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder that software is code, not meetings and ppts and spreadsheets. This is your reminder.
  1. Showing your work: It’s never too early to share your work with others. You don’t need to polish it. Don’t need clean it up. Don’t need to worry if it looks good yet. Make your work visible, as early as possible. Does showing your work scare you? Bring it up with your manager. Leaders should strive to make your engineering environment ego-free and safe to be wrong. The alternative is to rat-hole for days and turn up later with 500 lines of code and a single pull request – that’s waste. Collaborating with a teammate to get some feedback on your work? That’s value. Get that value.
  1. Estimates: Just kidding! Estimates are waste. Stop doing them. “Velocity” is the biggest trick ever played on Agile. The only valid argument that I know of for having a formal practice of estimating every piece of work is to find out if people understand the work differently. But the estimate is still wrong, and the practice is highly vulnerable to corruption and malice and all kinds of evil. If you make a practice of it, it won’t be long before your estimates are weaponized and someone starts bin packing your milestones. #NoEstimates
  1. Retrospectives: You always have time for a retro. The only valid excuse that I know of for not doing the retro is “I forgot”. I will actually accept that answer. Should we really get together for a whole hour and talk about the past? If you want the future to go well, then yes, you should. To find your team’s cadence, experiment and adjust as necessary. 
  1. Demos: It’s not done-done until you do the demo-demo. Demos have so much value for the team, but it’s easy to make excuses and skip them to “give people their time back”. What do you think they will be doing with that hour on Friday afternoon that couldn’t be done half-zoned out at the demo? (Yeah, I said it…) Just do the demo and let people see what you are working on (see #3). It’s also a good opportunity for people to build their presentation and leadership skills, which is also value. 
  1. Documentation: This is how code scales. I know it’s true because I read about it in this book from Google. You believe Google, don’t you? Software is a Game of Intents. Do not allow intents to get obfuscated. Do not force the reader to dig for intents. Take special care to document anywhere intents are non-obvious. Leave evidence of intended behavior, especially when it is surprising.

So we now that we have a few ideas about what waste is NOT, does this help us with understanding what waste IS?

Well, even what Lean might call “defects”, might not be worth calling waste in software. As my friend Lucas Siba likes to say, “Mistakes are just high speed learning opportunities.” An excellent reminder comes from this book:

“It is tempting but incorrect to label anything that goes wrong on a project as waste. Human beings make mistakes. A developer may accidentally push code before running the test suite. Our knowledge is limited. A product manager may write an impractical user story because he or she does not know of some particular limitation. We forget. A developer might forget that adding a new type to the system necessitates modifying a configuration file. Whether we conceptualize these sorts of errors as waste is a matter of opinion, but focusing on them is unhelpful because they are often unpredictable.”

Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering, p. 225

It might have to do with the non-linear structures of synthetic systems. It might have to do with the difficulty of expressing creative work in the form of an equation. (We are not machines!) It might be that models of complex systems are difficult to use for predicting the future. (“Past performance does not predict future results,” and so on…) No one has come close to defining an ergodic system for measuring software development, and so it’s hard to put labels like “waste” or even “value” on things.

Remember, once upon a time Yahoo banned remote altogether because … because waste. (What are they doing now by the way, with all the Covid?). Meanwhile, there are many highly successful organizations like Sonatype that are 100% remote work. In other words, what looks like waste to some is value to others.

So my recommendation is this: don’t focus on trying to eliminate waste, try to find the good in everything. Capitalize on the hidden value, wherever it is. And have fun doing it.

Published by JohnRauser

Eng Leader @ Cisco

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