Utilizing the Lean Methodology in the Remote Work Environment


Waste is a problem. Innovation is a solution.                                                                                                                        

Carter Liebscher|
January 20, 2021

Despite global disparities in COVID responses that have allowed some organizations to return to the office, remote work seems to be here to stay. Regardless of your industry and of your specific organization’s response, businesses en masse have made remote work the dominant mode of work this past year and may implement it for the foreseeable future.

Naturally, as remote work was previously only a necessity for outsourced work, many managers have struggled to put into action the right policies for internal employees. In other words: Your organization has likely gotten used to remote work over the past year, but it has it fully transferred over its successful methodologies from the office to the remote environment?

The lean methodology, for example, is a popular operations strategy for manufacturers. While many of its principles seem to be rooted in the physical workplace, they too can be applied to the digital workplace with success.

Let’s first define the components of the lean methodology, including the 8 forms of waste it seeks to eliminate. Then, we’ll show how each form of waste can show itself even amongst your remote employees. Lastly, you’ll learn how you can identify each form of waste and apply lean solutions in order to gain an innovative edge over your competitors.

The 8 forms of lean waste

Before diving into how to apply lean methodology in a digital working environment, let’s first define what the 8 forms of lean waste are.

  1. Defects: Products or services that are below quality standards, requiring a company to fix or replace the defected products at a loss.
  2. Overproduction: A surplus of a single product or service, losing out on resources that could have been allotted elsewhere.
  3. Waiting: Essentially the dictionary definition of wait: Employees simply working for a period of time or working slowly, usually caused by bottlenecks in a process.
  4. Non-utilized talent: Employees are your organization’s biggest asset—not tapping into their hidden or even obvious potential can leave the talent gaps managers have identified open despite the answer being in front of them.
  5. Transportation: Most common in the manufacturing sector, the sector lean methodology was initially created for, transportation as a waste usually refers to the time lost time physically transporting a product that could be truncated. (Physical transportation loss isn’t as big in the digital era, but it does have more metaphorical importance, from office design to sharing digital deliverables over geographies.)
  6. Inventory: Inventory itself being disposed or inventory requiring greater resources to house than its market value.
  7. Motion: Employees delegated to specific tasks and roles have to physically move across the organization in order to fulfill a step. This form of waste is, again, mainly directed to poor manufacturing floor layouts, but it has negative effects in non-manufacturing (e.g., digital) environments as well.
  8. Extra-processing: If your organization is producing excess product or offering extensive services without need (apart from the intangible benefits brand building and positive customer rapport), you may be operating at a loss.

Forms of lean waste in the digital working environment

We briefly touched on some of the effects of the above 8 forms of waste in remote workplaces, but let’s look more closely how each form of waste may manifest itself in today’s digital environment.


While defects are often attributed to physical products in the physical world, they too can manifest physically from the digital work.

An Excel sheet with the wrong data input might result in incorrect reports, resulting in misinterpretation, resulting in faulty products.

While digital communication platforms like Slack have made it easier for remote workers to keep in touch, simple mistakes can make their way from internal (mis)comms to your product.


Like many of these forms of waste, overproduction is often the result of miscommunication (or lack of communication) in the digital workplace.

Those on the front-lines of, say, a manufacturing floor may have trouble communicating with remote management and vice versa. As such, quotas may not be updated in real-time—or they may have been updated but not shared internally.

Overproduction can even refer to scheduling too many meetings in a work week, which can negatively impact your employees’ productivity.


Physical distance inevitably breeds downtime at some point in your operations.

While some employers expect remote employees to be reachable beyond business hours, the reality is that employees’ routines have changed since working from home. Lunch hours are taken when they’re able to, walk breaks are taken without phones, children need to be tended to.

The simple fact that you and your co-workers have new personalized schedules means waiting for responses, even on pressing projects or organizational goals, is the new normal.

Non-utilized talent

Going through such a change over the course of a year, organizations have a lot of undertakings at the top of their lists: rapidly solving new problems, delivering customer service digitally, adapting products to the new environment.

Unfortunately, professional development isn’t at the very top of the list. (Although it would prove beneficial in helping companies emerge this crisis strong.)

Turnover is a major cost for organizations, costing on average 6 to 9 months’ of a position’s salary on recruiting and training. Similarly, a disengaged employee—one who feels under-utilized in their current position—costs their employer 34% of their salary.

In the remote workplace, it can be hard to implement an effective professional development plan for different employees in different departments. With focus elsewhere in the organization comes gaps in employee contentment.

Your organization, of course, will eventually need to bring in new talent. But not filling a need with a ready-and-willing employee can lead to a litany of other issues.


As mentioned above, physical transportation as a waste doesn’t manifest directly in the digital environment.

However, at its core, transportation as a form of waste refers to the unnecessary movement of people and product.

Among remote employees, that means sharing too much information that has little bearing on larger organizational objectives.

Ideawake is a big proponent of building a positive culture of sharing. Ensuring that what’s being shared is aligned with management and their goals is a vital aspect of such a culture.


Whether your inventory is housed in one location or across geographies, it’s vital that the appropriate department is keeping track of your product accurately.

Learn how Sanford Health took a usually in-person event virtual with Ideawake

There are a number of inventory management tools that may help, including ecomdash and Ordoro. Again, though, physical distance can be a barrier between an inventory team, and a one-feature tool can only help so much.

Similarly, your current inventory of one-trick tools that don’t produce significant ROI—editing software, graphic design tools that you’ve since upgraded—can rack up monthly expenses that could be allotted elsewhere.


Like transportation, excess motion causes a drop in productivity.

Do your remote employees have what they need to successfully work from home? Do they need to travel to and from the office to pick up materials?

Such are the pains of shifting to remote work, but with remote work seemingly here to stay, management should cut down on motion.


There is such a thing as too much productivity.

Expecting employees to be available past business hours and overproduce won’t just cause burnout, but also—as the name of the form of waste suggests—produces too much material to effectively act on.

With bottlenecks all the more likely due to the digital space, employees who are able to keep up with an increased workload may find that their work isn’t acted upon—and thus may experience downtime (i.e., waiting), of course another form of waste.

Industries producing physical goods must be extra-vigilant about extra-processing, as many potential customers’ needs and expectations have likely changed throughout the year.

How to avoid these forms of waste in the digital workplace

Now that we’ve defined the 8 forms of lean waste and how they appear now in remote workplaces, let’s answer the core question: How do I avoid these forms of waste as my teammates and I work from home?

  1. Defects: Implement greater inter-departmental communication and collaboration—connecting your product management team with front-line employees, for example.
  2. Overproduction: More closely align departmental goals with overall organizational goals such that employee output matches up with desired
  3. Waiting: Break projects up into manageable, time-based chunks.
  4. Non-utilized talent: Provide time, space, and a place for employees to explore ideas that will add to your company’s bottom line.
  5. Transportation: Hear your employees out from all departments to determine if they need any materials to better perform their job remotely. Similarly, uncover ways to reduce supply chain delays through employee ideation.
  6. Inventory: Take stock of your digital tools and determine whether they add to your organization’s strategy for remote 2021 or if they’re an expense drain.
  7. Motion: Consolidate company comms and general information such that employees are on the same page and serving your org’s mission.
  8. Extra-processing: Keep departments on the same page with a platform that provides real-time collaboration.

There are a number of platforms that can help streamline your operations, including communications platforms like Slack.

An idea management platform, however, can more effectively and quickly address the forms—all while adding to your company’s bottom line and gaining an innovative edge over your competitors.

Book a demo with us today to get answers to your questions about growing and becoming innovation-forward in 2021.

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