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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Join the War on Waste

The costs of poor performance are insupportable.




Waste is the biggest thief on the planet today. The cost of waste far exceeds the costs that criminals and wars inflict on us each year. Why do we put up with the wasted effort of doing a job over, taking a defective product back and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occur in our hospitals every year? Let's look at just a couple of examples of health care errors and the resulting injuries or deaths.

Bad handwriting. In Redwood City, California, a doctor's illegibly handwritten prescription triggered a lethal chemotherapy overdose that ended the life of a 41-year-old father of three. The Institute for Safe Medication, in presenting its report on the incident, spread blame throughout a dysfunctional hospital safety system for the medical error that killed the man. The report cited multiple miscommunications by an overworked staff as the reasons for the death. The man was injected with 10 times the proper dosage of a chemotherapy drug--500 mg instead of 50 mg. He received a second 50-mg injection before his severe symptoms of toxic overdose were diagnosed a week later and his family was notified.

You pack it in, you pack it out. Each year an estimated 1,500 surgical patients have foreign objects such as sponges left in them during surgery, leaving many to face crippling health problems. However, there's no mandatory system for reporting errors, leaving the actual number of such errors in question. It's often only through malpractice lawsuits that these become public knowledge. It is estimated that 5 percent of doctors are responsible for the more than 50 percent of successful malpractice suits. (See "The Biggest Mistake of Their Lives," by Susan Burton, The New York Times, March 16, 2003.)


It would be easy to fill this entire magazine with horror stories related to waste in government, health care, airlines--you name it. All the public and private sectors are riddled with waste, an idea you surely get by now.

Let me define waste as "anything that need not or should not have happened." In a perfect world, there's no waste. Workers always assemble parts correctly so there's no need to test anything. There's never a flaw in materials, and products always work properly. When the package states that the light bulb will last for 10,000 hours, it will last for more than 10,000--and every bulb in the package will work. In a perfect world, people would enter a hospital and not contract another disease while there. Even speaker systems in airplanes would work.

Alas, this is just a fairy tale. In the real world, waste and errors are everywhere. People make errors, equipment malfunctions, and appliances break down the day after the warranty expires. Even Ivory soap is only 99.4-percent pure. Here are some examples of waste:

We waste our money because the products we buy aren't reliable.

We waste our energy by taking classes and not applying the knowledge we learn.

We waste our creativity by not implementing our good ideas.

We waste other people's time and energy by writing books that don't get to the point.

We waste the organization's resources by not doing a good job of planning.

We waste our reputation by not meeting commitments.

We waste our children's lives by not giving them the proper guidance.


The world is looking for a silver bullet that will win the war on waste (WOW). Unfortunately, there's no one approach that will do the job. It takes a well-designed arsenal of approaches, and well-trained personnel, to fight and win this war. A good general selects a mixture of approaches and trained personnel that will provide a number of options when the battle begins.

Unfortunately, in business today most of our generals (read: top management) aren't as familiar as they should be with the most effective WOW approaches. They try to fight the WOW using only one or two tools. Even if they win some battles, they don't win the war. As a result, they discard the approaches that they're using and start looking for new weapons. Organizations have failed with approaches such as TQM, reengineering, redesign, Six Sigma, empowerment, self-managed work teams and quality circles not because the approaches are no good, but because they were deployed and used improperly. An airplane loaded with bombs is a powerful weapon, but it can get shot down if it has no bullets in its guns to protect itself from the enemy's fighter planes.

I realize that every organization will not need to use all the 1,001 waste-prevention approaches, but I do believe that organizations should, at a minimum, evaluate all the major approaches before they stock their arsenals.

It's time to join the WOW. Make a personal commitment to stamp out waste at work, at home and in your personal life.

About the author
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of e-TQM College Advisory Board. Harrington is a past president of ASQ and IAQ. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 28 books. Visit his Web site at www.harrington-institute.com.