The Kaizen Way

If you had to stop reading this article this second and immediately begin the task of getting four new tires put on your car, filling the gas tank to the top, cleaning the windshield and then drinking seven ounce of water, how long would you guess that would take? Two hours? Three hours?

Now hold onto that thought and let me ask you a second question. Which car in the Indianapolis 500 race wins? Most people would say that the fastest car wins. Actually it’s not always the fastest car that wins. It usually is the car that spends the least amount of time in the pit. And what happens in the pit? That’s where they replace all four tires, fill the gas tank, clean the windshield and give the driver seven ounces of water to drink. And how long do you think that takes? Would you believe less than nine seconds?

At this point you may have figured out that I am presenting a business metaphor, but you probably dismiss my example as irrelevant to your business. After all, your business is quite unique. 

Here’s how the racing team gets that stuff get done in less than nine seconds:

  • The PROCESS was continuously improved over time
  • The team knows how to work well together ( or maybe their leader knows how to get them to work well together)
  • The team practices

You can improve your business process dramatically by continuously improving your business processes. But that means you have to admit to yourself that you need to CHANGE the ways you do things today. 

A very useful technique for bringing about change very quickly is called Kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning continuous improvement and has been proven successful whether the business is a large factory employing 1000 people or the corner flower shop with two employees. Application of Kaizen involves a study of the businesses processes in an effort to discover where the waste is. Then a new process is implemented after all the waste has been removed. The amazing thing about Kaizen is the speed of implementation. 

One of the techniques employed by Kaizen practitioners is to reduce set-up times in factories. Toyota, for example, was able to reduce the time to changeover their presses from producing one type of fender to another from twelve hours to nine minutes. Our initial example compared our method of changing four tires in three hours to that of the professional team who does it in seconds. The pros do it without all the waste. The waste was removed from their process. 

The foundation of Kaizen is simple. If you want better results, you must improve your process. If you want to improve your process you must discover the waste in the process and permanently eliminate it.

Processes are what businesses do. It could be the process of giving a haircut, or it could be completing an accounts payable transaction or it could be doing an oil change. The trick is to identify where the waste is in your business process.

If a slogan had to be attached to Kaizen, it would have to be, “Just go do it-and do it NOW.”The first step in improving your business process is to do some housekeeping. If you have a large office or a small shop, over the years there has been an accumulation of “stuff” that you simply don’t need and is slowing things down. So the first step is what we call the “Red Tag Campaign.” Give all the people in the area you want to improve a handful of red tags. The kind of tag that works best is the paper ones with strings attached. Tell everyone on your team that they have exactly 20 minutes to tie tags on any items that will not be used in the next 30 days. Initially everyone finds the notion ridiculous because every single thing in the work area is vital to him or her. After a very few minutes they will be amazed at how many things aren’t necessary (or won’t be for the next month). After all the tags have been applied, the next step is to step back and make a decision about each item. If stuff really won’t be used in the next thirty days, either move it away for storage or get rid of it.

Once all that stuff is out of the way, the team can focus on finding their waste. Kaizen has a very effective tool for doing that. All waste is divided into seven categories:

  • Waste of overproduction
  • Waste of inventory
  • Waste of transportation
  • Waste of making errors
  • Waste of motion
  • Waste of processing
  • Waste of waiting

The red tag campaign enabled your team to identify unnecessary items in only 20 minutes. The hunt for waste must also be completed in 20 minutes. Your team is given the above list and allowed just 20 minutes to seek out examples of each in their operation.

The team members must keep an open mind and pretend to look at the processes they have been doing for years as if this is the first time they looked at them. They should start asking questions within each of the seven categories.

Here are some examples of waste within these categories and questions that could arise:

Why is the boss given a 25-page report when everything he needs to know is in one paragraph? Why is there so much stuff in the in-baskets? Why do we put reports into fancy binders?

Why do we have so much of each category of office supplies: Why is there so much Xerox paper, toner, and pens? Or perhaps the florist would ask, “Why do I have so many flower pots.” The hairstylist might ask, “Why do I have so many hair brushes or tubes of hair products that will never be used?”

Why is the fax machine upstairs (causing Sally to walk three miles a week doing faxes)? Why is Jane’s desk 50 feet from Mary’s? Why do we have to walk so far to the copy machine?

Why do we have to re-do so many orders (or jobs)? Why are there so many errors? Why do we have to check for errors?

Why do we have to reach far over our heads to get what we need? Why do we have to stoop down to get our things? Why do we have to twist our bodies into uncomfortable positions to do our jobs?

Why do we do so many things that simply aren’t necessary? Do we really need an approval signature for simple things? Why are there so many “hand-offs” in our office procedure? Can’t one person complete a job without handing it to someone else?

Why do we spend so much time in the day being idle just waiting for the previous person to complete their job so that we can begin ours? 

People spending time doing any of the above are not doing anything useful for your customers. Once the list is completed it is truly a list of treasures. Discovering the waste is the difficult part of the continuous improvement exercise. Eliminating the waste is the easier part. For example a great deal of waste can be permanently removed by simple re-arranging the office. Moving the fax machine to a central location and perhaps buying a few more copy machines could save many miles of walking. When office people are walking, for example, they are not doing anything productive.

In any business there are only two measures that mean anything, how fast do we do our jobs and do we do things right the first time. If frequent errors are a problem in your company, then you must find ways to make your processes error-proof. This not only eliminates the need to re-do work, it eliminates the waste of time associated with checking for errors.

Wasted motion is not only bad because it makes your customer wait longer for service, it could lead to injuring your employees. Many times a workplace could be made much more efficient by very subtle adjustments and relocation of equipment.

Once the areas of waste have been identified, solutions must be implemented to eliminate that waste. The trick is to implement the solutions very quickly. If it really will save time by moving the fax machine downstairs, then do it. Do it right now. Don’t wait.

If your customers will get better service if Mary and Jane’s desks can be closer together, then move those desks right now. 

The idea is to make everyone responsible to finding ways to do their own jobs better. This must become the way the business routinely runs. Everyone must be trained to continuously improve their processes by discovering where the waste is and eliminating it. That is the Kaizen way.

This article was written by Jerry Feingold. Jerry was on my radio show a few weeks ago talking about Kaizen and how it can help a small business to revolutionize the way they provide service. Jerry is president of Continuous Improvement Consultancy offering services in the application of Lean Manufacturing techniques.His consulting service specializes in the Kaizen approach which emphasizes a “let’s go do it” approach that is quick hitting, highly focused and unleashes employee creativity dramatically. He has worked in Japan, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Austria, France, Denmark, and the U.S. assisting companies to become competitive on a Global basis. His clients include a wide variety of manufacturing companies from military contractors, consumer product manufacturers, and food processors. They include: FujiFilm, ITT Industries, Harman International, Reltec (U.S. division of GEC Marconi), British Printing, Suiza Foods and Pelican Products. You can reach him at (805) 643-4216 or his website,

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