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Kaizen Means You Care

by Dan Markovitz
April 21, 2016

Kaizen Means You Care

by Dan Markovitz
April 21, 2016 | Comments (8)

Peter is a 63 year-old man who operates the punch press at his company. At the end of the day, he drags a 50-pound garbage can through the building and out to the dumpster, a distance of about 75 yards.

His colleague, José, is about twenty years younger. Peter and José have been working together for years. Whenever possible, José tries to take out the trash because he doesn’t want Peter to hurt his back—but work being what it is, that doesn’t always happen.

I’m shepherding this company along its lean journey, and we’ve started by asking people to simply fix what bugs them. We’re not making people sit through lots of classes, we’re not doing 5S, we’re not trying to “move the needle” on the business—we’re just trying to get people to see that the way things were yesterday isn’t the way they have to be today. We want people to know that they have the power to make things better and easier for themselves. We often forget that’s the real first step in establishing a culture of kaizen—just knowing that you’re allowed to improve things.

Peter and José are men of few words. Neither said a word during the kickoff meeting, nor at any of the training sessions. I figured that they were resistant to change, or that all those years of punching the clock sapped them of any desire to do anything other than the bare requirements of their jobs. I assumed that they weren’t going to be active participants in the lean transformation.

So I was surprised when I saw an idea card on the improvement board from José. He wanted to put wheels on the garbage can in the machine shop. When I asked José about his suggestion, he said simply, “I’m worried about Peter. He’s 63, and I don’t want him to hurt his back dragging the trash to the dumpster.”

Lean leaders, and lean consultants (like me), often talk about the organizational benefits of kaizen: lower costs, bigger profits, shorter lead times, higher quality, etc. But the truth is, those benefits are pretty far removed from the daily lives—and wallets—of the people working in the company. What we don’t talk about quite as much is the human reason that kaizen is important. When we do kaizen, we make work easier for ourselves and for others. We use our creativity to help others. And as social creatures, that’s a lot more salient and inspiring than an increase in the company’s earnings per share. There’s a reason that Shigeo Shingo said that the four goals of improvement—easier, better, faster, cheaper—are listed in the order of priority.

The wheels that José put on the garbage can will have absolutely zero effect on the company’s financial performance. But it’s a first step on the road towards building a culture of kaizen. And even more importantly, it’s a way of showing that he cares.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  kaizen,  lean musings
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8 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt April 21, 2016
2 People AGREE with this comment

Actually I think that the wheels on the garbage can could have a small effect on the company performance. Let's say that the idea for the wheels never came up, and one day Peter in fact injures himself and misses work time. How do we make up for that? Reassigning people? Now you might need to take the time to train someone. Overtime? Speaks for itself.

That said Dan, you have really hit on something here. Building a culture of Kaizen is critical. And consultants or facilitators can't change the culture of a company. It MUST come from within.



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Dan Markovitz April 21, 2016

Ken, 

Thanks for the kind words. You're right that there probably is a financial benefit, but clearly that's a distant second to the primary -- human -- benefit. 

dan



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kevin kobett April 21, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Excellent post and plan. This is exactly how I would proceed. Like how you used a lean story to make your point. I like to ask the heroes of these stories, "Who was helpful?" The stories' heroes and helpful people are the first to go thru training.

"On the drive to work, what work task to you dread to do?" is one of my favorite questions to identify opportunities for improvement. Once you identify problems, the solutions are easy.



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Dan Markovitz April 21, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Kevin, 

When we really respect humanity, work becomes so much easier, right?

dan



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Andy Nowicki April 22, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

What an easy but profound question to ask.  Everyone has some part of their job that they dread.  What a way to get people to see what Kaizen means.



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Andrew Parris April 26, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Dear Dan,

thank you for this helpful reminder and inspiring story. In my work with World Vision in bringin Lean to our East Africa offices, I also had a number of stories of people whose work life benefited. For example:

* Reduced overtime, especially for Finance in end-of-month

* Less stress at end of the fiscal year because procurement happened on schedule rather than in a big push (including staff for the first time being able to take vacation at this time).

In Burundi, one of the impacts cited was completing construction of a school on time, at the start of the school year, rather than months late.

Lean really is about people - both our team and those whom we serve, because we're able to meet their needs better, faster, cheaper and, as you point out most importantly, more easily.



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Troy Weber May 19, 2016

Great article.  If you are in the Continuous Improvement field, you should live and breathe this every day.  What makes our jobs so rewarding is knowing that we help people improve the way they live and feel while at work (and sometimes save the business money in doing so).   Of course there may have been some small savings adding wheels to the can - but the BIG savings comes later.  Now that José and Peter feel their voices were heard, they will be providing ideas wherever they think it will help others.  Those little deeds create lean spokespersons, improve the culture, and drive velocity of improvement.



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dan markovitz May 19, 2016

Troy,

You must have been hanging around this company recently. This is exactly what happened -- these guys have been coming up with more ideas and becoming more integrated into the company since this first step. It's a joy to behold.

dan



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