Happy New Year! Resolve to live “lean” in 2017

Michael Wagner

Michael Wagner

Life seems to get more complicated by the year. So maybe, at the dawn of this new one, you’re looking to simplify. Make more time for the important stuff.

Such a resolution may be easier to enact than it is to accomplish. But Michael Wagner can help. An assistant professor of operations management at the UW Foster School of Business, Wagner has adopted the principles of “lean” manufacturing to achieve a more efficient life—in the office, in the kitchen, in the closet, in the car, in the inbox. We asked him to show us the way.

When did you begin applying the principles of lean manufacturing to daily living?

Wagner: In a general sense, I probably started “optimizing” my life in graduate school, when my studies were focused on optimization. The specific use of lean came later, when I started teaching it to students and realized it can be applied to settings much more general than manufacturing.

Why should I consider adopting lean principles for my life? What’s so great about efficiency?

In my view, it’s about living life to the fullest. Life is short, which can be interpreted as a limited resource. I want to get as much out of this limited resource as I can, and a primary function of lean, in this more general context, is to eliminate anything that doesn’t contribute to living life to the fullest.

Can you introduce the principles of lean manufacturing that you have adopted?

There are three basic principles that were developed at Toyota. Muda is basically a Japanese word for waste. When thinking about manufacturing, waste is usually interpreted as scrap or defective products. But this interpretation is too limited. Muda is meant to represent anything that does not add value. In manufacturing, it could be an idle machine not making anything. Muri is another Japanese term, loosely translated as overburden, which is detrimental to manufacturing. In other words, trying to make a resource (machine, employee) do more than they are capable of will result in poor outcomes, such as rushed, shoddy work. Mura, a Japanese term meaning unevenness, relates to variable workloads, resulting in poor performance. For example, giving a worker four hours of work today and 12 the next day will result in a stressed-out employee and inferior work. It’s best to “level load,” or give a resource (worker, machine) the same workload every day.

How do you apply these concepts to everyday life? Let’s start with Muda.

Muda, the best-known lean principle, is anything that doesn’t add value. For me, social media fits this definition perfectly. I feel that I waste too much time on sites like Facebook while some of the most productive people I know avoid social media completely. Another example is sitting in traffic, an activity that is beneficial to no one. To avoid this wasted time, my wife and I commute during off-peak hours and finish our work day at home. This saves us at least an hour each day to be more productive at work or enjoy more time relaxing (which is not muda!).


Muri is about taking on more than you can handle, which leads to inferior work, stress, and poorer quality of life. To regain quality of life, you must learn to say “no.” Requests on our time come from work, friends, and family. And we have to be careful to take on only a reasonable number of activities and tasks—despite wanting to say yes to everyone. One possible solution to muri is outsourcing. If you have too much going on in life, hire a cleaner for housework, send out your laundry, even sign up for a meal service. My wife and I recently started using Blue Apron which saves us the time we would have spent at the supermarket and drastically reduces our food waste—a win-win solution!


Mura is about spreading out your work in an even manner. Pace yourself! Don’t try to get everything done today. Some work environments allow flexible schedules, as long as the work gets done. Some people will cram all the work into a few days, to relax the rest of the week. On a related note, even going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day has been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia.

Living lean sounds like a great idea… in theory. How do you put these principles into practice?

A useful technique to deploy is the “Five Whys.” The goal is to determine the root cause by repeating the question “Why?” five times. Each successive question gets closer to true culprit of an inefficiency. Here’s an example of how it works, from my own life:

I forgot to pay my bill.
I never saw the email for it.
I guess I must have missed it.
It must have gotten lost among my other emails.
Because I have 1,000 emails in my inbox.
Because I don’t take the time to either delete or file away the email.

So the solution to the problem of a missed bill? Try to attain “inbox zero” by minimizing the number of emails in your inbox that require your attention. Remember, high inventory hides problems, and in this case the high volume of emails hid the email about the unpaid bill.

Do you have any tips for how to begin a lean life?

One of the most frequently cited reasons for failure at lean manufacturing firms is attempting to make too many changes at once. I suggest taking baby steps. Start with something simple to reduce either muda, muri or mura in your life. Hopefully you’ll see some improvement, which will motivate you to try to find other steps for reducing waste, overburden or unevenness.

Once you have achieved efficiency, how do you maintain it?

There is a principle for that, too: kaizen, or continuous improvement. Always keep an eye out for ways of improving how you go about your daily life. Never be satisfied. You can always do something better and there is always room for improvement. Getting things done is not about working harder, but working smarter.

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