Mura, Muri, and Muda: Unevenness, Overburden, and Waste

Three Japanese words sum up the workplace challenges targeted by Lean: mura, muri, and muda. Translated, they mean unevenness, overburden, and waste. Overburden, unevenness, and waste disrupt the actual value-added work that an organization is trying to accomplish.

Mura can be defined as “unevenness” or “fluctuation in demand or production levels.” Mura is any variation leading to unbalanced work situations. Think of a contracting process where renewals happen annually. Or suppose an agency submits a lump of legislation in a batch to Council, suddenly causing a large pile of work. Or imagine a licensing desk where a line of customers rapidly grows. In each case, there is a huge peak some of the time and a lull the rest of the time for people doing the work.

“In most companies we still see the mura of trying to “make the numbers” at the end of reporting periods. (Which are themselves completely arbitrary batches of time.) This causes sales to write too many orders toward the end of the period and production managers to go too fast in trying to fill them, leaving undone the routine tasks necessary to sustain long-term performance.

This wave of orders—causing equipment and employees to work too hard as the finish line approaches—creates the ‘overburden’ of muri. This in turn leads to downtime, mistakes, and backflows—the muda of waiting, correction, and conveyance.”

– Jim Womack, Lean Enterprise Institute

Muri translates to mean “strain” or “overburden.” Muri is any activity that puts unreasonable stress on employees or equipment. For example, imagine a team told to rush an order, causing them to work harder, faster, and longer hours to stay on deadline. Or, in the case of the licensing desk, the sudden line of customers causes employees to try to work faster to keep pace under the withering glare of people waiting for service. In these cases, the work risks overburdening the system by forcing more work than the system can handle.

Muda means “waste” or “wasteful activity.” Waste refers to any activity that does not add value from the customer’s perspective. King County recognizes the original seven wastes that Toyota identified: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Overproduction, and Defects. Every non-value added activity can be placed into one or more of these seven buckets of waste.

Many employees involved in Lean efforts across County government are able to recognize that Lean improves efficiency by eliminating waste (muda). Meanwhile, mura and muri are typically the root causes of muda.  Lean urges us to solve the root causes, not the symptoms! King County is still in the early stages of its Lean journey. As King County endeavors to become a Lean organization, we will get better at seeing the relationship between mura, muri, and muda – and strive to eliminate all three.

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