The Economics of Raking Leaves

I was out in the garden this weekend raking up leaves. Having read Geoff Watts recent post about using Scrum to clear his leaves – and as someone who can’t do anything without thinking about work (see Kanban and Quad Biking!) – my mind turned to how I would use Kanban Thinking to approach the work at hand. Surely I would advocate single piece flow by clearing up each leaf individually, visualising and measuring my progress?

I hope its clear that doing as such would be insane! But why? Maybe “single leaf flow” would be better? Why did my instincts shout out otherwise? The answer, as I have learned so often recently, comes down to making an economic trade-off. Every decision has a value and a cost, and finding the right balance is key, preferring higher value and lower cost.


Each leaf cleared from my lawn would have value in progressing me towards my goal of a tidy garden. However, the transaction cost of removing each leaf individually would be far too great. Therefore, a more sensible trade-off was to batch the leaves into piles, so that transaction cost was spread over a larger number of leaves.

Further, like Geoff, I also considered the risk of creating multiple piles before bagging them up. I could also run out of bags, or have the piles blown away. However, I knew I had plenty of bags, and it was an unseasonably still day, so I created multiple batches before bagging. I was even able to safely have lunch between batching and bagging without any regret. In other words I made another trade-off between the value (in terms of addressing risk) and cost. The value (or risk) wasn’t great enough to justify the cost.

I may not have designed a Kanban System to rake the leaves, but I did apply some economic thinking to decide what to do. If there’s one main lesson I’ve learned over the last few years, its that there is rarely a ‘right’ answer, but that there are trade-offs, and they are usually economic.

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3 comments on “The Economics of Raking Leaves

  1. I think a better “raking leaves” scenario where to apply a Kanban system may be when you have many gardens to tidy up. In that case, cleaning up one garden at the time and getting feedback from the owner will arguably make you converge on a good solution after some gardens; in the case of batching, you may rake leaves on 10 gardens before discovering that the owners wanted to cut some trees instead.

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  2. Ah, but the Kaizen thinker in me is prodding me to ask: why do you have such high transaction costs? It’s because you have a method that imposes high transaction costs. Why the method? It’s imposed by your tools.

    Would a leaf vacuum approach a single piece flow with low transaction costs..?

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    • Hi Martin,

      True, I was applying the economics to the current context, methods and tools. Having said that, I do have a leaf hoover and rarely use it. When the lawn is long and wet the leaves get caught up and the rake has to come out anyway!

      Of course, I could chop down the trees, but then that would be focussing on reducing cost at the expense of value 😉


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