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Jon Miller


The Importance of Metering the Smallest Losses

A drip here, a drop there, pretty soon we're talking real money

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 05:00

Please save water

There is an expression in Japanese, “Dust accumulates to form a mountain.” (Chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru.) While this may not be geologically correct, it carries a deep truth that lean practitioners will recognize through experience. Taken positively, this is the essential spirit of kaizen, that small changes repeated over time result in massive improvements. Taken negatively, it means that small, persistent losses result in huge losses.

This sign hanging on a water pipe in my hotel room asks the guest to save water, informing that a tap open just one millimeter results in 1,390 liters of lost water per day. Dust accumulates to form a mountain. With one simple motion, or the replacement of an old gasket, we can save thousands of liters of water per day. This thinking taken from the level of our homes to our communities to cities to countries and globally can help solve shortages of all sorts.

The importance of metering the smallest losses is that the action begins with awareness. A vague request to “save the planet” may appeal to our idealism but “save 1,390 liters per day per leaky tap” makes us sit up and take notice. While I’m not confident that any of us can save the planet in the next 24 hours, I know we can all save a lot of water. We need more simple signs like these. How many British thermal units (BTUs) are lost through leaky windows? How many kilowatt-hours (kWhs) of energy are wasted per square meter of unoccupied but lit and heated or cooled office space? How many thousands of dollars are wasted per year in our leaky compressed air we learn to ignore within our factories? The list is virtually endless.

Too many times we hear that it is not important to measure the results of the small kaizen because it is too hard to accurately assess the impact of small changes, or because it is more about engaging people and their creativity, or because too much talk of cost savings makes people uncomfortable. But this is a mistake. We need to speak openly, early, and often about our losses. And we need to meter even the smallest of them.

If you are not convinced that it is worth the effort to accurately measure and meter the consequences of these small losses on your business, the planet, or your life, consider these three things:

The smallest losses will forever be with us. By definition there will always be a smaller loss. We only notice the biggest losses, and if we become complacent, we will be unable to recognize that a lot of room for improvement still remains. We need to continuously focus our attention on smaller and smaller losses.

This is a core skill of a lean practitioner and one of the reasons a Toyota Production System sensei will insist on observing, timing, and documenting even hours-long work in seconds. This is so you will be ready when it is time to use slow-motion video and make improvements in milliseconds.

The smallest losses work hard while you sleep. Like water in a Seattle basement, the smallest always find their way back in. This is not because our countermeasures are insufficient or because it is futile to try to fix the smallest leaks, but because everything tends toward entropy. It’s one of the mysteries of our universe, but we can’t deny that things become less and less ordered as we go down time’s arrow. Thanks to this immutable second law of thermodynamics, lean practitioners, maid services, and metering device designers have careers.

The smallest losses are the easiest to stop. The great news is that as with any problem, early detection and countermeasure at the point of occurrence to address the simplest root cause is simplest. Setting a goal to recover 507,350 liters of water per household per year would seem like a gargantuan task for many of us, requiring sacrifices of all sorts, until we realize that this is just one little twist of a tap.

All it takes to make a mountain from dust is to practice metering, displaying the facts, and reminding ourselves that there are many kaizens we can do all around us every day by paying attention to the smallest details.



About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.