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Kaizen Every Day

Dec 4, 2023

Running to standard

Whenever there is a problem, we should always first ask the question: Are we running to standard?

Often the issue is that we’ve not followed the standard and we simply aren’t doing what we ought to be doing. It can be hard to admit to ourselves that we’ve merely been human and not followed the standard but, if we are able to do so, we can avoid a lot of time wasted solving problems that don’t, or at least shouldn’t, exist. Leading with Lean is knowing that you don’t need to reinvent everything and that using the standards that others have created is a fantastic way to then focus on applying your creativity to developing the next iteration of improvement.

Consider your favourite sport and how a game begins. It is highly unlikely that the players and officials would first discuss what the rules ought to be, other than clarifications of some specific details, such as the toss of the coin. Can you imagine the disruption to an event, for example an International Rugby game, if the coaches and players had to debate with the referee and their assistants on how long and wide the pitch should be, how many players would be allowed, what constitutes a ruck or a maul? It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it but, if you consider your daily life, how many times a day do you start meetings by discussing the ‘rules of the game’ rather than the real problems to be solved?

It is therefore extremely important that you work with your colleagues to ensure that you understand the ‘rules of the game’, the standards, that have been set and documented in order that you don’t have wasteful discussions and debates on a regular basis and, when new members of the team join, you can train them to these standards instead of leaving them to find their own way (and inevitably do it differently and in their own preferred way). This also applies to your personal ways-of-working, where taking the time to standardise what you do will help you to save time in the long-run, as when you receive requests for reports, analyses, documents, etc, you will be well placed to do that efficiently and without expending excess time on them.

Once you’ve confirmed that you’re working to the standard, it’s then important to be realistic about the scale of improvements that you are able to make. In the long-term everything is possible but often we can get stuck in a ‘think big’ mind-set, which can be debilitating as we focus on the large improvements, the step change initiatives, and wait for that great day when they solve all of our problems:

“When we have the new IT system in place everything will be okay”

“We just need the new CNC machine and then we can meet the quality specification and rate”

These are the types of statement that you might hear in the workplace and the unfortunate reality is that breakthrough improvement takes significant effort in terms of money, time and resource, and every organisation has limited resources to expend.

Whilst it is true that breakthrough improvement is critical, we far too often neglect the small improvements as we await the ‘holy grail’ of tomorrow. This is where the mind-set that every little grain of improvement will contribute to a larger, cumulative impact on your performance is crucial. The improvement, what in Lean Thinking we call Kaizen, doesn’t need to be significant in itself, in fact that’s the beauty of it, that it is quick and easy to implement and when you implement Kaizen regularly you’ll see your own performance, and subsequently that of your team and the organisation, improve.

That’s not to say that we don’t need step change improvement, quite the contrary we need both step and continuous improvement, but focussing purely on projects and breakthrough improvements slows your own improvement and that of the organisation and means that each project has to resolve a number of ancillary issues in order to be successful (for example solving master data issues, or documenting process tasks) rather than building on solid foundations. Again, if you and your colleagues have solved the ‘rules of the game’, then breakthrough activity can be focussed on making the true step change that a new or improved technology will bring, rather than exhausting itself on fixing the fundamentals.

Kaizen is looking inwards

However, an important clarification of Kaizen is that they not simply good ideas but are rather the outcome of solving one of the three types of problem:

1. The standard is not achieved

2. The standard is achieved but with high variation

3. The current standard is achieved but a new standard is required

Even in the early days of your transformation, when standards don’t exist, you will essentially be solving problem type-3 whereby a new standard, the first ever standard (version 1.0), is required.

In Lean thinking organisations every team member is challenged and empowered to constantly solve the 3 types of problem on a daily basis. Even when things are running well they will be given type-3 problems to solve, for example being asked to reduce the cycle time by 2-3%, and will normally solve it through the reduction of one or more of the 8 wastes.

I’m pretty certain that if you reflect on this, you’ll be struggling with a gap between this philosophy and your own working practices; how many Kaizen did you personally implement in the last day, week or month? Was it a true Kaizen in that you solved a problem with the current standard (perhaps the problem was that there was no standard) and did you:

  • Run it through a 3C?
  • Identify one of the 8 wastes and tackle it with the countermeasure?
  • Implement a new documented standard?
  • Share the new standard and have it agreed to by all who use it?

The above seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it? This is one of the reasons that I think that people find Leading with Lean such a challenge, as they are busy and therefore taking the additional time to invest in implementing Kaizen seems too much of a commitment for them.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve not found an easy answer to convincing people to do so. Coaching, people reading my books, practising, and my personal role modelling of the behaviour are the methodologies that I use and many people have come on the journey with me as a result. Ultimately though, it is only when you practise it for a prolonged period of time that you will experience and realise the overall time reduction that it provides for you, as well as the significant improvement in your performance that it delivers. This is because it will require the investment of time up-front and it can initially seem that you are doing all of the giving, contributing standards that benefit you but also your colleagues, who are not initially doing the same.

Why should I do it if others aren’t? That’s a pretty human reaction, and completely understandable, which is one of the reasons why many people are resistant to practising Lean. However, part of being a Lean leader is to go first and to see the overall improvements and role-modelling of Lean thinking as a win-win, and take pride in the gifts of effectiveness that you are giving.

Over the years I would say that the most important thing that I’ve learned about Kaizen is the inward perspective that its practise promotes. Typically human nature is such that we look at others to improve our situation; we could do things really well if only others would change or if the systems were upgraded or fixed. However, we are much more the masters of our own destiny than we recognise and we must therefore rid ourselves of excuses and prevarication, and instead focus on action and Kaizen.

Most importantly we need to constantly remind ourselves that Kaizen is about looking inwards, not pointing blame outwards, which is a really challenging belief to foster as it demands that we take accountability for our personal contribution to problems and therefore their resolution, as opposed to the easier approach of blaming others. This is crucial in moving from a victim mind-set to one of a player mind-set: In the game, on the field and fighting to win, every day, through the improvement of your work.

When you first start to practise Kaizen you will likely find yourself offering others suggestions of how they should improve their working methods instead of looking at your own practices. That’s human nature and we all do it but it’s so important that you begin to look inwards and consider what improvements you can make before advising others. The metaphor that I used earlier was to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others and that is critical here.

As your working effectiveness improves others will see this and will want to emulate your success and that will be your opening to discuss where you might see improvement opportunities for them. As you put standards in place for you and your team’s working practices you will begin to understand your processes better and be better able to see the myriad opportunities available to improve the elements of the processes that you own. Not insignificantly your colleagues, the downstream process team members and their customers (perhaps the end customer) will have observed the performance improvement and will be much happier in the relationship.

Looking inwardly is a core skill for Leading with Lean, as is the related practice of always beginning the problem solving with the question, “What can I do to solve this?”

This will apply as much to your own personal standards as to that of the organisation’s standards and, as is the theme in Leading with Lean, I really do encourage you to become a role-model in this regard. Show yourself and the organisation that the small amount of additional upfront effort to implement Kaizen every day will save a lot of time down the road as it avoids problems emanating from a lack of standardisation or from defective standards.

It doesn’t need to be perfect to be better

Another barrier to Kaizen that I often observe is the human instinct to perfectionism, the instinctive need to fix all of the problems or the whole of a large problem. Whilst there are some problems that cannot be fixed piecemeal, these are in the minority and most of our problems are a network of ineffective or inefficient practices and therefore, by making small changes every day, we can move our performance upwards in an incremental but ultimately significant way. You’ve probably heard or used the sayings “Don’t try to boil the Ocean” and “If you’re eating an Elephant, eat it bit-by-bit” and recognise the sentiments in these statements.

However, it doesn’t prevent us from falling into the trap of trying to solve problems completely or working on countermeasures ad nauseam. How often are you in meetings where someone (perhaps you) expands the conversation with a related but scope expanding topic that makes the problem resolution more of a challenge than it already was? I would also expect that you’ve experienced a situation whereby a countermeasure was presented and someone raised a “what-about?” item, which again might have been related but would increase the time to implement or would mean going back to the drawing board.

The crux of my point is that, both in our problem solving in teams and in our own individual issues, we must ensure that we focus on getting sensible incremental improvements in place through every day Kaizen, which will also help us to set in place more solid foundations for the solution of the larger problem overall.

About the Author

Philip Holt is currently Senior Vice President, Operational Excellence at GKN Aerospace, the world’s leading multi-technology tier 1 Aerospace supplier. He was formerly Vice President, Continuous Improvement at Travelport, a leading Travel Commerce Platform, and prior to that held a number of senior Lean Leadership roles with Royal Philips, most notably Head of Continuous Improvement for Philips, Head of Continuous Improvement for the Consumer Lifestyle sector, and Head of Operational Excellence, Accounting Operations. Philip was the lead author of the Philips Lean Excellence Model.

Philip has over 30 years of business experience in leadership roles spanning the customer value chain, in Industry Leading Companies such as GKN Aerospace, Philips, Gillette, and Travelport. During this time he has built up an impressive reputation in Lean Leadership practices and is a regular speaker at industry conferences.

He studied at Manchester Metropolitan University, Warwick Business School, and the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School).

Leading Lean by Living Lean; Changing how you Lead, not who you are, is his third book, following the Axiom 2020 Business Book Awards Bronze Medal winner, The Simplicity of Lean: Defeating Complexity; Delivering Excellence and the success of Leading with Lean: An Experience-based guide to Leading a Lean Transformation.

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