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Identifying Waste: Stop. Don’t Look. Listen.
15 Sounds That Shout Waste. (+4 Page PDF)

Stop. Don’t Look. Listen. 15 Sounds That Shout Waste.

Waste reduction is a cornerstone of Lean. Waste is anything that does not add value to a process or serve the customer. The first step to eliminating waste is identifying it. Most people do this by observing a process and looking for inefficiency or redundancy. Although you can learn a lot by watching, sometimes you end up identifying more waste by listening. Whether you are on the shop floor or in an office, find a safe place to stand where you won’t get in the way and close your eyes when teams are in full swing. Then listen for the sounds of waste.


Problem words

“HEY”, “WAIT”, “WATCH OUT”, “HOLD ON”. All these words point to a problem. Even questions like, “Can I borrow your…?”, help you identify that someone doesn’t have the right tools for the job.


Why are they being used? Often, they increase the risk of injury and indicate that parts aren’t fitting right. In some cases, there is a legitimate use for a hammer, but more often than not, they are being used for ‘adjustments.’


In assembly areas, grinders should not be used because they alter parts, possibly making them out of spec. In fabrication areas, they point to a problem in an upstream process.

Falling parts

When a part falls it presents a potential safety hazard and can create quality problems if the part gets damaged. It also indicates that installation or transportation methods aren’t working correctly.

Vibrating Machines

Every machine has that sound it makes when something it is a little ‘off’. Think of the sound of a dentist’s drill. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZggrrrr. That noise let your dentist know right away that something’s not quite right with what she is doing.

Even when the production team is on a break, you can hear the sounds of waste.

Fans and other motors

The cost adds up over time if machines are left running or lights are left on.


Leaks in the air lines are often covered up by the sound of production, but when the shop gets quiet, it can sound like a den of snakes.  

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Unanswered phones

That is the sound of a customer going somewhere else.

Angry voices

You can always tell when someone on the other end of the line is mad, even if you can only hear the person in your office. Sometimes customers are unreasonable, but generally the emotion is grounded in a valid problem that you now have to spend time and resources to fix.

Customers talking in line

Your customers can get disgruntled if they have to waste their time standing in line in a service environment. Slow lines mean you risk losing valuable repeat business.

Shuffling of papers

This indicates poor organization and ineffective 5S, and means that someone somewhere is waiting for your answer. You may also hear something like, “Jim, do you know where the new account files are kept?”—another indicator that things aren’t easy to find.

People walking away from desks

When employees get up from their desks when they are not on break it often indicates layout problems. Frequently, the culprit is a shared resource that is centrally located—file room, copier, printer, etc.

The sound of warning buzzers office equipment

Some alarms are routine (i.e. a fax machine that is out of paper), but others are an indicator of worn out equipment or poor maintenance.

Conversations with inanimate objects

For some reason, office workers like to have conversations with computers that won’t play nice. Even if the computer isn’t listening, you should.

Loud passers-by

When a person is elbow deep in a product on an assembly line, nobody seems to want to interrupt. When a person is staring at a computer screen, visitors seem to have no problem striking up a conversation. Interruptions such as these, even if they are work related, generate considerable waste. It can take a long time to reset. 


Train yourself to pay attention to the sounds of waste, but more importantly, get into the habit of looking for the root cause and fixing it. The better you are at identifying waste, the fewer problems your work area will have.


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