Taking small steps for a long time will get you far!

How to improve your business performance with less effort

In this article we would like to show you how easy it can be to improve business performance using the tools of Lean Management with a concise and focused project approach named Kaizen. Kaizen is the Japanese equivalent for quick and smart improvement. Literally it means “to take something apart and put it together again in a better way”. Implementing Kaizen projects (or events as we call them) is part of the Lean philosophy of continous improvement. These projects involve everyone: managers and workers alike.

One of the most important benefits of Kaizen is that it will generate quick results with measurable improvements in a short period of time. There is no better incentive than seeing quick results from your effort, don’t you agree?

Kaizen is teamwork

Kaizen is about teamwork and empowerment. It uses a ‘bottom’ up approach in which the people doing the actual work in the process that needs to be improved are highly involved in the Kaizen. Of course the commitment of management is needed to allocate time and people to the project. Lots of Kaizen projects can do without any financial resources. The management of the organisation or business must embrace the Lean philosophy of ‘continous improvement’ and support the Kaizen efforts. The philosophy of ‘continous improvement’ contains two aspects: first the long term commitment to a strategy that keeps making things better and the short term commitment to implement short improvement projects. Taking a lot of small steps for a long time will get you far!

To take this article away from the theory of Lean Management, Continous Improvement and the Kaizen approach, I will give you an example from our own practice with one of our clients. I will present it in an anonymous way to protect the confidentiality of our client and his business. But this is an example from real life about ten months ago at this date (May 2018).

Our client

Our client wanted to improve the performance of some of its internal business processes. There were three main gains to achieve: in the first place improvement of service (mostly delivery time) for the clients of our client and in the second place less energy and time wasted by the workforce in the internal processes and in the third place less mistakes in the output of some processes. We were very grateful that our client wanted to use a Lean approach and agreed to implement several Kaizen projects. We agreed upon a timeframe for the implementation of just one week!

Preparation

Of course there was some preparation to be done before the implementation of the four chosen Kaizen projects. Teams had to be formed. Teams were instructed to gather the necessary data about the processes that would be involved. This is an important one: data about the current state of your performance is vital for any improvement effort. If you don’t know where you are right now, how can you ever tell that your improvement efforts had any effect? And the data is also necessary to make the right choices between all the possible improvement projects.

Of course the people involved had to have some training on the philosophy of Lean Management, the Lean tools and the deployment of Kaizen events, before we could start with the actual projects. Please note that this short training would be a one-time investment, because, after this initial training people would know about Lean and how to use it in uncomplicated improvement projects in the future.

Start of our Kaizen week

So we used one day to instruct and train the workforce involved in Lean Management, tools and Kaizen events. About 25 persons (team members and management) were participating in the course.

We started on a Monday with this one-day training course. The next 2 days were used to sit with the teams (each team a half day) and look into the problems they experienced in the business process they were responsible for executing. All teams were lead by the manager of that team, who also was the process owner of the process we looked at. The engagement and input of every team member was necessary and stimulated. By starting with a brainstorm session, engagement was ensured and everyone was motivated to take part in the project.

Brainstorm sessions

The brainstorm session was used to identify all the problems and hiccups in the business process. After that we prioritised using a Pugh Analysis to choose the problem that was to be adressed in our Kaizen project. The Pugh Analysis is a decision making model, that is used to choose between a list of possible alternatives. The decision is based on several criteria to weigh the possible alternatives. Knowing what the problem was to be handled in the Kaizen project all the possible causes to the problem were assembled and categorised with a Fish Bone (aka Ishikawa) Diagram. We executed a Root Cause Analysis with the team to identify the root causes that were generating the problem. This is another important one: without knowing the root cause of any problem, you are likely to just syndrom-fighting instead of problem-solving.

Now, at this point -knowing what was causing the problem- we had a pretty clear idea of the actions we could undertake to eliminate the root cause. We used another short brainstorm session with the team to identify all the possible actions and we yet again made some choices. We made team members responsible for these action to be executed within a short timeframe.

Implementation

The team then used the next two days to implement the actions they were responsible for. The trainer from Smart Solutions was always there in the background to coach and guide any team member with any problem.

At the end of the week we all came together again. All the four teams involved were given time for a short presentation of their specific Kaizen and the actions that were implemented. When Friday came already some major changes were made in the business processes that needed approval of management.

After a few weeks the organisations did a follow-up to ensure the changes were still in effect and improvements secured.

Conclusions

Of course the realised improvements in the performance of the business processes in a very short time were the obvious positive results of our Kaizen events.

But there is an even more important benefit achieved with this approach: people in the organisation learned that they were capable as a team to tackle problems in the workplace in a very short period of time. They had the tools (that are not very difficult to use) and they had the experience they could change their working conditions and other factors that had negative effects in their work and duties in an easy way and within a short timeframe.

Like I stated at the beginning of this short article Lean Management and Kaizen is about improvement but also about empowerment.

Willem Jan Stokhof

Lean Six Sigma Black Belt