I have fought waste my entire career. First, as an industrial engineer working to minimize time in each step of a process. And later, as V.P. of Quality for Milliken & Company. Milliken was an early adopter of quality practices and one of the first Baldrige winners. We did not call it “waste” early on, but later the term started to creep into our lexicon. It evolved through “The Cost of Non-Conformance”, “War on Waste” to “Toyota’s Seven Wastes”. This was a major mindset change as we started to view waste in a larger context.

Benchmarking trips to Japan in the mid-90s introduced us to the Toyota’s Seven Wastes,

  1. Overproduction
  2. Waiting
  3. Unnecessary transport or conveyance
  4. Over processing or incorrect processing
  5. Excess inventory
  6. Unnecessary movement
  7. Defects

Thinking in terms of categorizing waste was a breakthrough in the industry. The traditional cost buckets of labor, waste and supplies were turned on its head. We were learning to see the waste in our processes. Now it was visible and we could attack it with the new quality tools. Many of us, like myself, spent our entire careers identifying, eliminating and introducing countermeasures to sustain the improvements. There was a lot of excitement and energy around waste elimination.

The Greatest Waste

While the original wastes were significant, my experience leads me to say we never measured or addressed the greatest waste of all – non-sustainability. Most organizations never realize the full potential of their improvements they have made. Just ask any CFO worth his or her salt if they believe the reported waste reductions savings get to the bottom-line.

I have. Most don’t.

But before we get into the “why” of the matter, let’s understand what we lose when we fail to sustain an improvement.

  1. Expended Resources – The time and materials are used to make an improvement is a waste if not sustained.
  2. Lost Gains from the trial.
  3. Loss of Replication Opportunity – Breakthroughs usually happen on a small scale. The real value of the breakthrough is to spread it to all possible applications. When we don’t sustain, we can’t replicate.
  4. Additional Resource Requirements – Time and materials are required to do it again.

Create the gains, replicate the gains and hold the gains. Why can’t so many organizations do it?

It’s Boring!

That’s right, sustaining is boring. I have never met an engineer or quality professional that said they would rather work on sustaining activities than solve problems. Solving problems that eliminate waste is not only more fun, it is significantly rewarded by leadership, as a general rule.

There is a false assumption in many organizations that improvements will stick. There are conversations around ownership, control plans and review meetings. And those things are all good, but once we are on to the next new thing – we all know what happens…

Creating Sustainability

Great organizations have leaders that understand this challenge. And yes, it starts with leadership. It can never be a program. Programs have a beginning and an end. They must be processes that are embedded in our everyday work. How do you do that? Great leaders know it is more than a management style. It requires a management system.

The Need for a System

Great leaders also understand the only way to embed improvements into the work is to have a robust system.  There had been so much written about the Toyota 7 Wastes, but the linkage to the Toyota Production System is not well understood.

Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System, realized early on that a lean production line set up by Toyota’s corporate TPS group would degrade over time. Ohno believed the only path to waste elimination was through the Toyota Production System.  Fuijio Cho, Former President of Toyota Motor Corporation added ““Many good American companies have respect for individuals, and practice kaizen and other TPS tools.  But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner – not in spurts – in a concrete way on the shop floor.”

Milliken was fortunate to create a similar system, called the Milliken Performance System, a couple of decades ago.  The original purpose of the system was to reduce and cost and improve quality. Good systems do just that, but great systems not only make the improvements, they sustain them. They are built into the daily DNA of work.

Dynamic Tension

The real difference between good and great systems of work is “Dynamic Tension”. Tension can be created on several levels. One example would be the need for improvement versus the need for standardization. Work based solely on improvement never sustains. Work based only on standardization never improves. Dynamic tension is required for both. The same is true for the need to stop equipment for defects versus the need for continuous flow.  Dynamic tension is intelligently designed into the system.

If an organization is focused only on improving they never get there. Great leaders know they need great systems and great systems create positive tension in the organization. I have not seen a better way to eliminate the greatest waste of all.


Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

Craig’s seasoned perspective adds to the foundation of leadership for the Performance Solutions by Milliken team. He began his career with Milliken & Company as an industrial engineer, but his experience also includes product development, account management, market management, corporate education, corporate recruiting, and activity-based costing. Craig furthered his career by running several industrial businesses before being promoted to director of quality in 1994. In 1997, Craig was promoted to vice president of quality at Milliken University, where he spearheaded Milliken & Company’s implementation of Six Sigma in 2004. He has held leadership responsibility for all corporate continuous improvement processes. Craig is a graduate of the Harvard University’s Advanced Management Program.


Performance Solutions by Milliken brings a unique approach to operational excellence and safety methods to its clients. Their team of experienced practitioners go beyond lean manufacturing and the six sigma philosophy and create a culture of holistic, sustainable change.