There's a common refrain one hears when broaching the subject of Kaizen to a neophyte, "I'm just too focused on our day-to-day operations to really concentrate on continuous improvement at this time." This is tantamount to saying, "I'm too busy chasing cows to repair this broken fence."
The resistance is understandable. For too long, the word "Kaizen" has been followed by the word "Project." To the uninitiated, Kaizen can often come across as "homework" – something one has to go and DO. It requires resources and meetings and time and focus and energy and with a full workload, most employees just don't have enough to give. In fact, many employees have suggested Kaizen projects to prove the futility of doing Kaizen projects and while their hearts might be in as right a place as their tongues are firmly in cheek, they are missing the point.
Kaizen was never designed to be external. It was never intended to be a result. Kaizen, when done properly, is a method, a tool to reduce non-value added steps and, in general, make an employee's life easier. Kaizen needs to be part of an organization's DNA to be fully effective. However, it does not need to be a goal unto itself. The raison d'etre of Kaizen is to ELIMINATE MUDA (waste) and make small streamlines to processes resulting in their being done with the maximum productivity bang for minimal effort buck.
In that spirit, Yusen Logistics has ushered in a new age of Kaizen by "improving the way we improve." By taking the philosophy of Kaizen and streamlining it to its essence, Yusen has created a fully fluid yet robust new "Kaizen Culture" based on the paradigm of:
Make the Rule…
Follow the Rule…
Improve the Rule.
Make the Rule:
The beauty of Kaizen is that it is a gemba-based methodology. "Gemba" translates as "the real place" but for the purposes of process improvement, it means "where the work is." One is never going to be able to fully understand what is going on by just talking about processes and reading SOPs. The only way to see the real picture is to "genchi gembutsu" (go look, go see) at the "gemba" (where the work is). At first this may seem an obvious step but it is astounding how often the gemba is ignored when the subject of process improvement comes up.
The first step in Kaizen is to go to the gemba. Observe the employees, notice how each may do the same task in a different way, analyze as to which is the most effective and document the best practice. This is a procedure. This is a rule.
Follow the Rule:
It isn't enough to merely have documentation as to how we "say" we're supposed to do something. We have to ensure that everyone is doing the process correctly. To accomplish this we train. We create visual indicators to facilitate ease of understanding and, most importantly, we "genchi gembutsu" and monitor. This is the key to standardization and once standardization is achieved, it's very easy to notice anomalies in the process. Each variance is an opportunity to ask "Why? What caused the variation? Is it possible that a better way of doing the process has been found?" If so…
Improve the Rule:
Once a procedure is fully standardized and consistently followed, we look for opportunities to streamline and make it even more efficient. And, if we find them?
We make another rule. Follow that rule and then look to improve again.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Forever.
Kaizen is not about grand, sweeping, earth-shattering, huge undertakings. That is not to say that re-engineering and re-design projects are not necessary and effective, they are just not under the umbrella of Kaizen. Kaizen is an employee-centric language of empowerment; it embraces the concept of "wisdom of the organization" and exists to provide the tools and empowerment for each employee, an expert in his/her own right at a particular job, to take ownership in the tasks he/she performs and to know how to make the tiny improvements that ultimately will add up to big gains.
Kaizen is a series of base hits that ultimately wins the game, not the one grand slam home run that gets all the press. It's the lift operator who finds a way to shave off 90 seconds per load. It's the office employee who designs a visualization tool to indicate when toner needs to be reordered for the copier. It's the manager who develops "job aids," visual step-by-step process training tools, and posts them around the gemba so that new employees can have a quick reference. Base hits.
In the upcoming months, we will be delving deeper into the world of Kaizen, including a deeper look into each step of Yusen's Kaizen philosophy (make the rule, follow the rule, improve the rule), problem solving with PDCA, visualization, clearing workflow with 5S, and much more. Yusen hopes that readers will be able to take these tools back to their gembas and make improvements today that will ease their own mudas.
Until next month, remember: Kaizen is a road, not a destination.
Kirk White has worked in every division of Yusen Logistics. After a brief stint in Transportation, he transferred to Corporate, where he coordinated Yusen's Employee Empowered Kaizen system and served as a Specialist for the Business Process Re-engineering group, after which he moved to the Warehouse division to serve as the East Coast Quality Manger before ultimately joining the International division, where he hopes to use his Quality knowledge base to prove an asset to OCM.