If A Third Of What We Do Is Waste: Why Can’t We See It?

How do we create an environment where saying something is a waste of time is a good thing? ~ Andy Tabberer

There’s a fairly repeatable pattern in the behaviour of CEOs when they near retirement or leave the workforce entirely. They will often become more outspoken about the failings of the system they were part of. They will reflect back on their careers and become more self critical. For instance, I had a recent conversation with a former CEO who observed that 30% of what the company they had presided over had spent time on was ‘waste’. They didn’t think it applied solely to their organisation, rather it was representative of an entire sector.

Nearly a third of our activities equating to waste sounds massive but I think it is probably not far from the truth.

Waste as in: difficult-to-use systems that complicate processes and hamper what customers and colleagues really need.

Waste as in: corporate guff that fills time but adds no value and results in calendars chock full of back to back meetings.

So if nearly a third of what we do is a waste of time – how can it remain untackled by an executive?


Most companies think and see in vertical lines across a series of vertical silos. This leaves numerous blind spots where complexity and inefficiency can thrive: cross-functional, cross-geographical, cross-business activities. This space is like the dark web – an ungovernable place where no executive or team has a single point of accountability.

It’s in this dark place that the way the organisation really operates is revealed. This doesn’t appear on any structure chart, in any process map, or in any strategy.

It is also in this space where the ‘system’ lurks. According to W.Edwards Deming 95% of variation in the performance of a system (or your organisation) is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people. This is also known as Deming’s 95/5 rule.

Yet rather than looking here , or even becoming aware of its existence, we can often spend our time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic instead. Doing restructures, bringing in new people and consultants, incrementally improving processes that often shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Perhaps we overstate the effect of the people in our organisations, and we spend too much time addressing what they feel and think without addressing the more complex, systemic issues that influence how they perform or behave.

Once you look into this space between the silos you see that whole system change is needed. Whole systems thinking: recognising that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other is required to address it. Rewiring this requires a commitment that few will be willing to make.

There is also a trust issue at play here. In most organisations if you put your hands up and say “a lot of what we work on is waste and doesn’t add value” and ask for help to eliminate it – you’re seen as an ineffective leader. Or you are asked to cut back on resource – which reduces the input but does nothing to fix a broken system.

If all this sounds negative, it’s not. People are up for change like never before, and smart organisations are recognising that their people must be empowered to change the system.

So how do we create an environment where saying something is a waste of time is seen as a good thing?

I’ve been running workshops looking at strategy development over the past few weeks. One of the common themes has been about how we must change the way we work to deliver more value, and concentrate on leap forward activity rather than just keeping heads down.

People have been incredibly open about waste and what doesn’t add value. People recognise that silos do exist and they are conscious that they sometimes work in them. People commented that we often don’t have conversations about this and need to talk more.

These workshops have in effect been adaptive spaces, that help facilitate the movement of innovative ideas and information across a system by connecting individuals.

The opportunity then is to build such spaces between the vertical silos. As Mary Uhl-Bien has described many of us deal with complex issues but our organizational systems are designed to go to order, an often bureaucratic or structured or standardized response.

Even when we are dealing with something as amorphous or non-specific as ‘change’ we’ll create a process to deal with it or a Change Demand Board to try and control it.

Instead we must build spaces that are more adaptive whilst resisting the need for order and keeping our organisations loosened up for change – so we can get innovations in and embedded as a new way of working.

Perhaps we fail to deal with the 30% of waste simply because we are looking at it the wrong way.

Never look vertically.

Look horizontally.

Once you’ve seen the wasted time, money and effort you can never unsee it.

Related: The Growing Immunity To 'Change Management BS'