The 8th Waste, Hidden Talents and the Sweeney Miracle

When Taiichi Ohno first outlined his 7 Deadly Wastes, he was focused on turning Toyota into an efficient workplace. As his ideas spread, an American publisher named Norman Bodek translated and published many of Ohno’s writings in America.

Bodek, described by others as the “Godfather of Lean” added an eighth waste to the list. This waste frequently gets overlooked because it is not external; you cannot see it, directly assess it or put a dollar value on it. It is the waste of non-utilized talents.

Why did this Waste only appear when Ohno’s concepts were applied to America? Part of this is the cultural mindsets of Japan and America. In Japan, there is a strong sense of responsibility on the part of all workers for the health of the economy, while American manufacturers believe in the role of the crusading entrepreneur; that problem-solving was exclusively the role of management.

As a result, American organizations have lost countless opportunities as workers were rarely involved in improvement efforts, their talents lying dormant. Bodek was very clear about the need for eliminating this waste in the workplace, “When you unlock this hidden talent, people become highly motivated and actually love to come to work.”

This waste even extends to hiring. Before a Lean Transformation, employees are often hired for one particular task that they then perform, in relative isolation, in the factory setting. Since Lean Manufacturing teaches us to break down the barriers between departments, form smaller cells of employees that work closely together and standardize the work of each job, this sort of single skilled employee is no longer ideal. Instead, you want a flexible employee that is able to adapt quickly adapt their job responsibilities to changing customer demands.

Employees come from all walks of life and often bring with them many more skills than their supervisors recognize. A former quality inspector might bring a high attention to detail and would be ideal for an accounting position, or a front-line customer service representative might be ideal for making good decisions under pressure. Never underestimate the skills and experience each individual brings with them to work each day that might not be fully utilized in their current position.

Accurately assessing your workforce’s skill level is only part of the solution. Training is an integral part of eliminating this waste. Part of the Lean transformation is ensuring that each worker is reasonably familiar with the processes in other departments so they can help prevent problems “downstream”. Cross-training your employees is making an investment in a flexible and adaptable workforce that can reconfigure to meet future challenges.



Never doubt that a quality instructor can train any employee. There’s a classic story taught in business school called “Sweeney’s Miracle.” In 1965, Dr. James Sweeney (above), a professor at Tulane University, was responsible for the Biomedical Computer Center.

He believed that anyone, regardless of education background, could become a capable computer operator. He began training George Johnson, a janitor at the facility; Johnson would sweep and clean during the mornings and in the afternoons, he would learn from Sweeney.

During this training the university gave Johnson an IQ test, set in their belief that no one below a certain level could learn. According to the test, Johnson should not be able to learn how to type, much less operate a computer. Sweeney was furious and threatened to quit unless Johnson was permitted to finish his training. Sweeney prevailed and Johnson successfully mastered the operation of the computers. Johnson was so successful that he was swiftly put in charge of the whole Computer Center, where he trained many others in their use.

This is a classic example of capitalizing on unused talents. Sweeney had faith in his own skills as an educator and believed that Johnson possessed more talents than his current job utilized. By investing the time and energy in Johnson, he gained a much more valuable employee that was then able to encourage others to utilize their full abilities.

The eighth waste often is difficult to identify but is just as necessary to the Lean transformation. Bodek often quotes a fortune cookie he once received, “You have the talent to discover the talent in others.”  Take a moment to think about the people in your workplace, could they have under-utilized skills? What are some of the ways you can use the full range of their talents?

Learn more about Norman Bodek and the Eighth Waste in our video series here.

January 22, 2015

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