To eliminate waste, you first have to find it, and waste isn’t always out in plain sight.

If you’ve ever lost your keys or glasses, you probably started looking for them in typical places, expanding your search until you found them. If you’re looking for waste in your organization, you’ve already looked in the typical places. Now it’s time to expand your search.

Every process, whether manufacturing, business or creative, has five basic steps: queue, setup, run, wait and move. Consider the business process of paying your bills. When the bills arrive they wait in queue because you are not set up or ready for them. Setup, which might only take 5 minutes, consists of getting out your checkbook, stamps, return address labels and a pen. Then you write the checks-the run step. The check then waits for other pieces of mail before it finally moves on to the postal system, where it begins a whole new cycle of queue, setup, run, wait and move.

You could cut the time for the run step by writing checks faster, or drive it almost to zero by paying bills online with a mouse click. But, if you can’t reduce or eliminate time from the rest of the process flow, you won’t get the bills paid any faster.

Similarly, we spend most of our effort, creativity and resources toward improving the run step in a manufacturing process. But the run step is the only value-adding step in the whole process flow. More importantly, it is almost always the smallest element of the overall process lead-time. We must now learn to look for waste in new places if we want to make significant improvements.

Lean is not born from what we see; lean is born from how we think. Imagine your plant staff huddled around a value stream map of your process. Value stream mapping has become extremely popular, but just like any tool, it can do more harm than good if the right thinking or principles aren’t in place.

You can tell a lot about how a team is thinking by what team members see in the value stream map. Consider this a lean management version of the Rorschach inkblot test. If the team members can only see the problems related to the run step in the flow, they are not truly thinking lean. But if they can see what was originally intended-the flow of information and material-they likely can see the waste where it really exists, in queue, setup, wait and move.

Ignoring the connection between information flow and material flow is a common mistake, and a great indicator of how a team thinks. Far too many teams will build a value stream map of what they perceive as “manufacturing” without examining the flow of information from the customer down to the person who must actually make a decision or apply that information. This is perhaps the most pervasive source of hidden waste.

For example, in one particular order entry process, every order went through credit check. Once they got through the queue and setup steps, 95 percent of the orders were approved in one minute. But once approved, they had to wait for a batch load in the system before moving on to the production control step. What appeared to only take minutes actually added several hours to the overall flow of order fulfillment. That same kind of waste exists in just about any process you examine closely.

Waste elimination is not accomplished through the application of tools. Waste elimination is a continuous process of creating new solutions to your existing problems. However, eliminating waste is only half of the battle-to eliminate waste, you first have to find it. Waste isn’t always out in plain sight. We must look where we haven’t looked before.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site