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Harish Jose


The Best Kind of Kaizen

Without understanding, improvement is unlikely

Published: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 - 12:01

I have been writing about kaizen a lot recently. It is a simple idea: change for the better. Generally, kaizen stands for small incremental improvements. Here I’m going to look at what is the best kind of kaizen.

The twist in the dumpling

A few posts back, I talked about the order for kaizen, including the idea of equipment kaizen or setsubi kaizen. To introduce the concept of the best kind of kaizen I will share a story from Masayasu Tanaka, dealing with equipment kaizen. He tells of a plant that manufactured steamed dumplings (manju in Japanese). They were trying to automate the entire process of making steamed dumplings, a directive that had come directly from the president of the company.

The last step of the process was to make a twist on the top of the dumpling. All the previous steps were easily automated; however, the twisting of the top stumped them. Finally, company engineers were successful in creating a machine that could indeed twist the top of the dumpling. Everybody was happy, and they cheered the smart engineers for their hard work.

However, in the midst of all the celebration, someone asked, “Why is there a twist on the dumpling, anyway?”

Silence fell across the plant floor. Nobody could answer the question. The engineers involved didn’t know the answer. Eventually, with enough asking around, the answer was discovered: The twist simply indicated the dumpling had meat inside. The information could have been conveyed with a dent or cut on the top of the dumpling, or a different wrapper. (Source: Kaizen Teian 2, Productivity Press, 1997.)

The best kind of kaizen is eliminating the task altogether. Our first focus should be to understand the purpose of the task, and then see if we can eliminate it altogether.

Final words

I’ve written about how to do kaizen. The steps for kaizen have their roots in the problem-solving manual from training within industry, which is called the ECRS process. It should be followed in the order shown below:
Eliminate unnecessary tasks. The ultimate improvement is eliminating a task altogether. What and why questions help us with this.
Combine the steps. What are the steps that need to be done in a series? Are there any steps that can be done in parallel? Where, when, and who questions help us with combining steps to eliminate waste. Additionally, combining also reduces the number of discrete steps in the process.
Rearrange the steps. Sometimes changing the sequence also allows us to take away waste from the process. Where, when, and who questions help us with this. Can we do the current step three before step one? Is there any logic to the current sequence of steps? Can we rearrange them to create a better sequence?
Simplify. Is there any task that can be simplified to make the whole process faster and better? Does the operator spend a lot of time trying to sort things or fumble with things? Can we ultimately simplify all the steps?

I’ll finish off with a story I read on Snopes that begs us to first understand the purpose of anything we are trying to improve.

A more frightened than injured young Seabee electrician was brought into the hospital suffering from electrical burns. Shortly afterward his instructor, a chief electrician, arrived. “Why on earth didn’t you turn off the main power switch before you tried to splice the wires?” asked the chief.
“I wanted to save time, chief, and I’ve seen you stand on one leg, grab the wires, and splice without turning off the power.”

“My God, kid,” exclaimed the chief. “Didn’t you know I have a wooden leg?”

Always keep on learning....


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.


Kaizen why it fails in Western Culture

I never understood Kaizen until it was explained by our Japanese management.  The purpose is not simply continual improvement as many so-called experts sell.   Kaizen is rather a continually improved pathway at every operation of an organization, toward meeting the requirements and expectations of its customers.

Kaizen is not something management can implement, rather it’s the release of responsibility and authority from management to the worker which provides the worker the autonomy to change their work as necessary so the organization can continually meet the requirements/expectations of its customers.  Most Western management refuses to release that responsibility and authority and therefore kaizen will forever remain a buzz word to them.  

Perhaps the most amusing point of Western management is that they assume themselves (managers and supervisors alike) to be able to control every step of every process every second of the day.   This is simply nonsense. However, it’s the standard to which they hold themselves, and it’s one of the reasons why Kaizen does not work in such Western culture.   The other Western management failure is to have its various departments or functions or teams, working on objectives which are averse to other departments or functions or teams within the organization.   Kaizen cannot flourish in an environment such as this as it will become counterproductive, the kaizen itself not considering how it affects the whole.

Further don’t ever count the number of kaizens as prize, as that approach can be discouraging to others who have equally effective improvement ideas but either less in volume or they work within a more robust and effective process in the first place.  Any reward for kaizen should be private and not public.  Acknowledging kaizen and its contribution to improve the organization is sufficient

Without knowledge of the product or service being provided and the requirements and expectations of the customers, and without the responsibility and authority to effectively change their work processes, employees shall always fail at achieving kaizen.