Eliminating Muda

I wasn’t expecting to find sage homeschooling advice when I read Natural Capitalism, a book written by folks who founded an environmental think tank.  There I was reading along about corporations interacting with the environment, when chapter 7 called out to me:  “Pay attention, homeschooling moms!”  That chapter is titled "Muda, Service and Flow.”  I don’t speak Japanese and couldn’t find “muda” in any online translators, so I’m taking the authors’ word for the translation and passing it on to you. 

They say that "muda" is a Japanese word for "waste," "futility," or "purposelessness."    Taiichi Ohno, "the father of the Toyota Production System," abhorred waste, and defined it as "any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value."  Natural Capitalism discusses muda/waste/futility/ purposelessness in terms of business models. But the Ohno quote, about waste being "any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value," struck me as an important idea for me as a homeschooling mom to consider.

The resources my family and I devote to home education include the obvious--money--plus time and energy.  Our homeschool lifestyle absorbs all three of those resources.  So the question is, are there some "human activities" using those resources, yet not really creating any value? Perhaps it would be wise to regularly make a list of all our homeschooling activities which consume resources, then evaluate each one to see if it is muda, or if it is truly worthwhile.  In making my list, I discovered some lessons:

1. Take a good look at old habits.

 Buying curriculum is a habitual thing for me.  I’m always alert to tools that might engage the kids intellectually.  But the first obvious bits of muda I saw in our home were shelves of curriculum we've never used.  It looked so helpful at the curriculum fair or in the Rainbow Resource catalog, yet it didn’t actually fit into our goals.  Another conspicuous waste was the curriculum we at least tried, but didn't enjoy or learn very much from—things I forced onto the kids simply because I spent money on them. Then I remembered classes and activities for the kids that took time, money, and energy--all three--yet didn't really offer much of value.

So sometimes I don't find out that something is muda until it is too late!  The commitment is already made, and the money already paid.   But at least as soon as I recognize a wasteful situation, I can look for the closest opportunity to reduce that waste, re-selling the curriculum or leaving a sports team at the end of the season.

2. Continual adjustment is needed.

An activity may be muda at one point in time, but when circumstances change, it might become more valuable. Or it could be the opposite, where the activity starts out with value then loses its significance.

An example:  for several years, we met weekly with two other homeschooling families.  We did an occasional organized activity, but most of the time, we just "got together." 

The kids simply played while we moms talked and talked and talked.  This weekly time offered a huge amount of value to our family:  the kids--and more surprisingly, the moms--became best friends.  Having close friends who shared our lifestyle was sanity-saving and it brought happiness and completion to our lives.

Then things began to change.  The kids got older, and two new families joined our little group, bringing new social dynamics to the gathering.  In addition, the kids in all the families developed disparate interests, causing some of them to grow apart.  When it was time for our weekly meeting, I had to practically drag our two youngest kids out of the house; they just didn't want to go.  The value of the activity had obviously decreased. 

Gradually and congenially, our group disbanded.  I do miss that regular therapy time with my friends, but the resources it took to meet every week (time and energy) didn't give us a big enough value anymore.  So the right choice, eliminating muda, was to stop doing that activity.

3. Expect the unexpected.

Sometimes activities surprise me by how valuable they are.  Pokemon League and Tae Kwon Do classes are things I would generally consider muda.  They consumed fair amounts of money, time, and energy.  But because these activities gave our two sons joint interests, giving them reasons to practice at home together, the classes turned out to be quite valuable.  The boys' togetherness for these activities deepened their friendship, which was something we parents had been hoping and praying for.

4. A little muda may be necessary.

Sadly, sometimes an activity has been muda, but because it was associated with church, we felt we needed to keep it anyway.  Hopefully this will turn out to be worth it in the end, if the kids learn lessons in being loyal to the church without expecting perfection from the church members.

5. Defining muda depends upon the family and on each individual.

Each family needs to consider its own ideas of value versus waste.  In our family, teaching everyone to play the piano is extremely valuable.  In most families, playing the piano is muda and not worth the trouble. 

As another example, a few years ago, two of my friends put together a wonderful class for homeschoolers on politics for an exciting election season.  This was a worthwhile learning opportunity for their kids.  But for our family, an elections class would be muda.  We discuss, analyze, and debate politics all the time as a normal part of life.  We don't need to spend time or energy going to an additional class each week about something we do naturally.

In addition, an activity might be muda for one person in the family, but very important for another person. 

So muda is subjective.  It's just one more example of how we as homeschooling parents have the terrific opportunity to choose what's best for our own families, and for each of our kids as individuals.  Aren't we lucky?

6.  Regularly ask, “What is going well in our homeschool?”

Certain types of activities have always been valuable for us:  some that quickly come to mind are family vacations, reading aloud, playing board games, making music, listening to music, family scripture reading, and spending time with each child individually before bedtime.  It’s so important for us to recognize these things and consciously choose to continue them so that items of lesser value don’t take over.

This theme of muda comes from a book about corporations.  But success in our families is surely more important than success in any moneymaking project. We even get support for the idea of eliminating muda in 2 Nephi 9: 51: “Do not spend money [or time or energy] for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.”

Do we have muda to eliminate?  Have we invested in things of true value to replace that muda?  This is a topic I personally need to revisit on a regular basis. Yet I’ve already learned enough from the exercise to become sure of this:  it is definitely not muda to take time to evaluate where our family resources are going, and if those resources are being spent in truly beneficial ways.