One man’s garbage is another man’s gold. This usually works as the driving motivation for pawn shops, salvage yards and garage sales. What does it have to do with your lean journey?

One of the dominant goals of lean is the elimination of waste. But, try as we might, not all waste gets eliminated. Some of it gets collected up and hauled off. This is true literally of some of the physical waste that we generate. It is also figuratively true of some of the other waste we generate, such as waiting.

Every day, more waste piles up. What’s a lean thinker to do when they’ve exhausted all their creativity to eliminate a waste?

Turn the garbage into gold. Or, in lean parlance, turn the waste into value.

You probably already do this in several situations in your personal life. For example, with my extensive travel schedule, I just cannot eliminate the waste of waiting to board a plane (especially when it’s late). So, I convert that wasted time into value. I do things that I never seem to have time to do that fit the situation, such as listen to podcasts or read. I don’t feel too bad about the waste because I’m still generating value out of that time for myself. Of course, I see plenty of people who seem content to retain this waste, and complain about it.

But, can you do that in your organization? Consider what happened for centuries in lumber cutting. What happened to the sawdust? It was just simply waste. You had to get rid of it, sweep it, blow it and collect it . . . until people saw value in it.

Through innovation, that sawdust became particle board and oven wood pellets. This is more than just finding a creative way to get rid of the waste. This is turning it into value that a customer is willing to pay for.

Many food processors take the material that isn’t fit for packaging (but still good) and recycle it back into the mix to be re-extruded or pressed into something else. This brings out another point-in the process of turning the waste into value, don’t lose site of the fact that it is waste.

Because food processors have an “out” of reprocessing, the urgency to get it right the first time is reduced. Don’t hide the waste; keep it visible. The repurposed waste is likely worth less than your original intent. Otherwise, you would shift your business priorities.

Consider “wasted” time in your organization in the same way. While I wouldn’t call breaks waste, I know of one organization that put some lean training videos in its break room. They were only in one corner, so it didn’t impose on break time. But, people who were interested could pick up some learning. And, many did.

I believe there is a process for considering turning waste into value. However, it won’t provide you the solution. It will only guide your thought process.

First, have you exhausted all reasonable options for eliminating waste? You don’t want to fall in love with converting it to value if you have the chance to eliminate it altogether.

Second, is there someone else that values this in its current form? Don’t try to convert it if people will take it as is. Where do you go to get large cardboard boxes when you prepare to move? From your local grocery store. No conversion necessary.

Third, how can the waste we reworked, combined or reprocessed to provide something of value? Remember the sawdust example above. By itself, sawdust is useless. When reprocessed, it has a new purpose and a new life.

We should seek any opportunity to eliminate waste. A good lean thinker has a lens for waste. A great lean thinker has a lens for value. Put that lens to good use.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is co-founder of the Lean Learning Center and co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. You can follow his blog at www.jamieflinchbaugh.com.