Lean, Focus & Waste Reduction

Two weeks ago, I was finally able to meet Michael, our intern turned junior developer. Even though Michael has been working here for 3 months, we’ve never met because he lives in California. He decided that we should eat at The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective. It’s an interesting place, not because of what’s on the menu, but what’s not on there. They only serve one kind of vegetarian pizza a day, in one size or as single slices.

That’s it. No appetizers, different pizza sizes or ingredients.

If you told anyone that you were opening a pizza shop and only offering a single pizza a day, people would tell you you’re crazy. They’d say you need to at least offer customers the ability to have their own ingredients. However, The Cheeseboard has decided to completely optimize their daily business and eliminate all of the waste that goes along with a more traditional pizza place. They don’t need to have a robust stock ingredients available any given day & they don’t have to throw away any ingredients that are unused at the end of the day. They don’t need different pan sizes to cook the pizza and they don’t need to worry about their major bottle neck, their oven, being taken up with different orders. They even make the pizzas without exact measuring and throw in any pizza cuttings when you order a full pizza.

Think this has affected their business? You’d be surprised to know that they consistently had a line out the door for their pizza. They’ve optimized everything about their business around making a profit. They don’t even take credit / debit cards, only cash & checks to avoid the unnecessary fees. This laser like focus has created an extremely efficient business.

One of the core tenets of Lean is eliminating waste. The easiest way to do that is to simply do less. Write less code, build less features, offer less customization, etc… If you focus yourself onto a few core properties or steps in a process and optimize the hell out of what’s left, you will find yourself becoming more and more efficient at that process.

This is true of any system or process, even sports. Take this quote from Chris Brown, author of the fantastic blog Smart Football about the choices offensive coordinators make with regards to their offensive systems:

– Grab-bag offense: Far and away, the number one problem from a strategic view is a disorganized, “grab-bag” offense that lacks a definable identity. This isn’t to say that you can only do one or two things, but the bad teams almost universally do not know who they are. Say what you will about Tony Franklin at Auburn, but that whole thing was a mess last year because, among other reasons, they had an identity crisis. But this problem is not just germane to coaching changes or new offensive coordinators. Often, teams that have been fine try to “update” their offenses with the new-new thing, and more often than not they regress. There’s a completely true old coaching adage that it is less important what system you run than it is the fact that you have a system, preferably one that you know well and can coach. Hence an offense like Urban Meyer’s works for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that the entire team is completely committed to it. The same is true for Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, or Nebraska’s great I-option teams, or really any other good team you can think of. They might appear “multiple,” but there’s an identity there. Again, it’s hard to underemphasize this because not only does it make planning coherent, it has its biggest gains probably for practice time: when Meyer or Johnson or Osborne or any of the other committed coaches practice their offenses, they focus exactly on what they will actually do in games, and their stuff all fits together. A grab-bag team might be adding or subtracting stuff week by week, and they never get good at anything.

It’s amazing how spot on this quote is. You can even replace the names and the football references with any complex process and business and it really loses nothing. The cost of adding anything new to a system is measured not only in what you’re adding, but also what adding it displaces. You have to shift resources, train people, plan for what happens if anything goes wrong and more.

In the end, you have to focus what’s important & eliminate the unnecessary crap that doesn’t directly contribute to the end result. In the case of the The Cheeseboard, the end result is to sell pizzas at a profit, not to have more choices than any other business. For football offenses, it’s to score points, not to have a 500 page playbook with a 1000 different play combinations. The focus is profit and scoring points, respectively. Nothing more.