The value-added improvement mistake
May 19, 2021 | 2:13 pm CDT
Brad Cairns

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at the Center for Lean Learning and Quantum Lean. He also runs a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where he puts lean thinking into action every day. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].

At the heart of lean manufacturing, it’s all about eliminating waste through continuous improvement. This means we should look at every single process, every single day with an eye for making it better. A great guideline is to work to making everything easier, better, faster, cheaper. And in that order. But there is a huge pitfall here, which I’d love to help you avoid. 

Value-added vs. non-value-added
First, we must understand the difference between value-added activity and non-value-added activity. One way to look at it would be that everything your customer is willing to pay for could be considered value-added. Another wonderful way to decipher value versus non-value would be to ask yourself are the parts changing shape? Is what you’re doing getting that component closer to being a finished part? 

Let’s quickly look at some examples:

  • I’m pushing a piece of wood through a saw; this is value-added. The part is changing shape. 
  • I’m carrying that same piece of wood from the saw to the shaper; this is non-value-added as the part is not changing shape and the customer doesn’t care how far we carry parts.
  • Setting up a machine, despite the fact that we have to do it, is still considered non-value-added. Customers don’t care if it takes you one minute or one day to set up a machine. They just want their parts. And during the time you were setting up the machine nothing changed shape.
  • What about all those hard-working people in the front end? The receptionist? The engineers? Your bookkeeper? These are all necessary functions for the business, so surely there must be value, right? Well, not so much. All of those activities are non-value-added to the customer.
  • What about finally being able to deliver your product to the customer? And none of us get paid until the product has been delivered, so defiantly a value-added activity right? Once again, this is 100-percent non-value-added. I know it sounds crazy, but no parts are changing shape. As a matter of fact absolutely nothing is happening in transit.
Sanding is value-added work, but moving parts to be sanded is not value-added.

It takes a keen eye to distinguish between non-valuated and necessary. We have many tasks and operations that are necessary. I mean if we don’t do them, the whole place will come to a screeching halt. That doesn’t mean they are exempt from improvement scrutiny, actually quite the opposite. So, when you come across a “necessary” function you know is non-value-added, just add two words on the end of your sentence to remind you it’s still waste. When someone says, “Yes, but we have to do that,” simply add, “For now.” Then keep a keen eye on how to reduce it. We are all programmed to eliminate non-value-added activity. It’s why we use a GPS when we drive; no one wants to take the long way anywhere. 

Using an inspection light to find defects is not value-added, but fixing defects would be value-added.

Watching for waste
Now that we’re all on the same page with the two different types of activity, let’s talk about the big pitfall we’re trying to avoid. All too often when we try to improve a process, we look at the wrong things. Take sanding. We carefully watch the operator to see how they’re sanding, their sanding techniques, how fast they are sanding, etc. Therein lies the trap! 

This will be a tough nut to swallow for almost all of us, because we all feel overworked and underpaid. But 90 percent of everything we do in the course of a day falls into the non-value-added category. And when we try to improve a process, we get drawn to the value-added portion. We’re spending the majority of our time focused on improving what amounts to just 10 percent or less of the overall process time. 

Unloading parts is not value-added but machining is value-added.

Cutting non-value-added work
So long as the job is being done adequately, don’t waste time trying to improve the value-added portion. Instead, focus your efforts on everything that’s happening around that value-added activity. Try to reduce the non-value-added component that accounts for 90 percent of the process time. There will be much more low hanging fruit in the non-value-added portion.

If an overall process time is 10 minutes, and the value-added component of that Is 10 percent or 1 minute, and say you make a process improvement of 50 percent of the value-added activity, you just saved 30 seconds per part. But if you make that same 50-percent productivity gain focusing your effort on the non-value-added component, you will have saved 4 1/2 minutes! That improvement is more than eight times better!

It’s easy to see why this could be such a dangerous trap.

Every single process we are involved in every single day is riddled with non-value-added activity. Target the non-value-added component and watch your improvement efforts skyrocket.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].