The Mighty WOMBAT: A Simple Approach to Finding Muda
The wombat is a muscular Australian marsupial that burrows and eats plants. It's also an acronym that stands for Waste Of Money, Brains And Time.
The language of Lean Six Sigma includes many Japanese words, and learning these can inhibit the understanding of this process improvement methodology for native English speakers. The Japanese words may be misunderstood and misapplied. In the case of Kaizen Blitz, formed by using the Japanese word Kaizen (continuous incremental improvement gained from reflection and understanding) with the German word Blitz (lightning), an oxymoron is created. Despite the contradiction of meaning in this term, companies still pay for consultants to deliver Kaizen Blitz and then question why the process improvements gained are neither sustainable nor effective.
When I train and consult people in Lean Six Sigma, I use English terms wherever possible. Concepts are quicker to understand and it avoids creating barriers between people who know the Japanese terms and those who don't. Adding unnecessary complication in itself creates process waste.
The Need to Identify Waste for Effective Process Improvement
Frontline workers need to quickly understand and apply Lean process improvement to their day-to-day activities. As many of these workers are in departments where staffing has already been cut to a minimum, it’s important that any training or process improvement workshops in which they are involved are based on Lean principles. To ensure that resources of time, material, money and intellect are only applied where they add value, we need to identify where they are being wasted.
By definition, Lean process improvement means reducing the resources consumed from receipt of an order to delivery of the product or service to a customer.
The Japanese word Muda defines seven categories of waste, which are easily remembered with the acronym TIM WOOD.
However, when starting process improvement it’s more important to identity waste in general than to categorize it. Resources are the money consumed in financial and material resources, the waiting time between or during process operation and the waste of intellect and knowledge required to make poorly designed or uncontrolled processes work. Put simply, these things are the WOMBATs.
This is how I used WOMBAT in recent process review and mapping sessions for a local government client:
- Every process mapping session had four to six attendees including management and front-line staff. Every session started with a WOMBAT brainstorming to identify the issues of concern to each attendee.
- Participants were given a block of yellow 3"x5" sticky notes and a black marker pen (to ensure legibility when later photographed with a digital camera).
- WOMBATs were then described as those activities and issues that waste time, cause frustration or seem pointless, and that removing them would make processes faster, cheaper and more reliable.
- Participants were asked to write their known WOMBATs in capital letters, one per sticky note. They were asked to work in silence for 10 minutes and not to question or comment on what other people were writing.
- As sticky notes were completed I put them on the wall in random order.
- As the rate of contributions declined, usually after five to 10 minutes, participants were asked to go and look at the WOMBATs already posted as it might prompt more ideas of their own.
- At the end of the WOMBAT writing, participants were asked to work together on the task of arranging the sticky notes into affinity groups, assigning titles to each.
As well as capturing ideas, this activity acted as an ice breaker and identified issues to be addressed in the AS IS and TO BE process mapping that followed. Sessions were typically one to two hours in duration depending on the complexity of the services under review. When WOMBATs affected more than one person, this was shown by duplicates and was a quick way to establish their priority.
For many participants, this was the first time that they had been asked to identify the issues that got in the way of them doing their jobs effectively. The range of WOMBATS identified by each person ranged from three to 12.
Once people actively start looking for WOMBATs, they become better at finding them. The humorous term WOMBAT stimulates them to look at issues more creatively. Once identified, WOMBATs can be swiftly eliminated and more WOMBATs will be discovered as people see the benefits of removing waste from processes.
For quick and simple identification of process waste, just find your WOMBATs!
Team Building Humor Strengthens a Team Identity or Spirit, Paul McGhee, PhD, http://www.laughterremedy.com/ accessed 10.02.09
KAIZEN BLITZ, tackling symptoms not causes, Stuart Corrigan, Vanguard Scotland http://www.systemsthinking.co.uk/6-25.asp accessed 10.02.09