Value Add vs. Non-Value Add: The Power of One Question

A few weeks ago, I was faced with the daunting task of moving across the United States with my family of four, two cats, a litter box, and everything we own in our Toyota Sienna minivan.

One of the founding principles of Lean is the question between what "adds value" to a process and what doesn't. As explained in our Lean Primer series video (, for a process/step to be “value add”, it must meet the following three requirements:

1) The form, fit or function of something is changed.
2) The task is performed correctly the first time.
3) The customer is willing to pay for it.

When I was first learning these principles, my kids were really into a mobile game that they would play on my phone. There were certain elements of the game that were a little difficult for them and they would oftentimes ask me to help them out. As I learned where they might have difficulty, I found myself playing the game during lunch, to help them out. Before I knew it, my children had moved on from the game and my phone’s app time tracker indicated I was spending upwards of two hours a day playing the game.

As I started to turn on the game one day at lunch, after spending the morning investigating non-value added activities within a training program, I stopped and asked myself one question:

Is this game adding any “value” to my life?

I spent most of my lunch internally debating this question with myself. When I first started playing, I was helping my children complete a task they needed help with. My actions brought them joy, and that in turn brought me joy. However, at this point, the game had become a mindless way to fill time. Therefore, was it an adequate use of my time. Now you can certainly argue that if it provided a means to decompress it might be adding “value”, but I realized that at that point in my life, I had essentially allotted two hours of non-value added activity to my day.

My intent is not to define what should or should not add value to your life, my point is to help illustrate how I began to ask myself this one question with nearly every facet of my life: Does it add value?

Does this activity get me closer to my goal or does it align with my why? If the answer is “no”, it is non-value add.

When my son makes a snide comment to his sister, I ask if that comment added value to his relationship with her or the conversation in general. Oftentimes, the answer is “no”.

As I struggled in a work environment that had drastically changed from when I started, I had to ask myself if the job still added “value” to my life and career, or if I would be better suited in a different environment.

All of this leads me back to how I managed to move across the country with everything I owned in my minivan. My wife and I began to embrace a more minimalism several years ago. We realized that a lot of the possessions around us no longer aligned with our lifestyle. There were “sentimental” items that we debated over, but for the most part it was usually pretty clear as to whether or not we should keep things. Basically, we were determining what added value and what didn’t.

Like most individuals confronted with the task of moving, we looked into the cost of renting a truck. For various reasons, we didn’t want to make the move in two vehicles, so we then explored having a hitch installed on our van and renting a small trailer. Our major constraint during this process was the several hundred-pound aerial rig that my wife uses as a traveling Aerialist (think Cirque de Soleil). We didn’t see a means to move that, all that we owned, and ourselves, in one vehicle without pulling a trailer. Not until my wife suggested that we buy a rooftop storage unit for the rig, and a few miscellaneous items.

We proceeded to undertake an exercise in the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. We took one of the rig poles to our local sporting goods store to see if it would fit. It did. Next, we contacted the rig manufacturer to see if the weight of the poles were within the tolerance range for the topper. It was close, but it checked out. We now knew that we had a place for the rig, but could we realistically fit everything else in the van?

Our first step was to take all of our empty suitcases out to the van, and see how we could arrange them, and how much space would be left.

I took everything back out, measured the total dimensions and then marked out a spot in our living room with tape. This would be our constant check point for the next few weeks.


As we literally started to go through every item we owned, we repeatedly asked ourselves, “Does this add value to our lives?” There were several trips to our local Donation Center, but little by little our goal began to feel like a realistic possibility. It truly felt like an accomplishment when I finally closed the doors, took a step back, and realized we had accomplished our task of fitting everything we own into our van.


Again, just as my intent isn’t to define for each individual what “adds value” to their life, I am also not suggesting that everyone needs to take the “extreme” measure of making sure you can fit your entire family and all of your possessions into whatever vehicle you own. What I do want to get across though, is the practice of asking that one question, “Does this add value?”

Before you schedule that meeting, ask: “Will it bring value to the project/team or would an email suffice?”

Before you make a critical remark about an employee’s mistake, ask: “Will this add value to their overall development, or is there another way I could handle this situation to help them learn from this?”

And yes, ask if you really need all of that piled up equipment or inventory in a department.

As we begin to remove the non-value added items, habits, behaviors and distractions from our lives, we can truly begin our path to a more Effective Lifestyle! We simply have to take the time to pause and ask, “Does this add value?”