Kaizen and small things – A recent example

This picture shows a recent example of genuine Kaizen in a US factory. The workpiece in the vise is 28 ft long, and requires greasing in multiple locations. The operator on the left was tired of running back and forth to a fixed location to pick up the grease. The cart now contains everything he needs to apply grease anywhere on the work piece, and he wheels it back and forth as needed. To the right is the production supervisor for the area, who supports this and other similar projects.

How was it actually done? The production team from this area was given a budget of $500/operator to spend as they saw fit on supplies and devices for improvement projects at a Home Depot store. Their actual spend worked out to $113/operator, including the cart and bins you see on the picture and a magnetic sweeper.

It is a perfect illustration of the Kaizen concept. It is too small an improvement to warrant the attention of engineers or managers, yet it makes the work easier for the operator and makes him more productive. The only way to make sure such improvements are made is to enable and encourage the people who do the work so that they do it themselves. It is a valuable part of Lean, but it is not all of it. Higher-level issues must also be addressed, include make-versus-buy decisions and production line layout.

23 comments on “Kaizen and small things – A recent example

  1. Comment in the Lean & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    The best part of the article in my eyes was the concept of budgeting a dollar amount per employee to eliminate the oh so familiar comment heard in many plants these days….”That is a great idea, but we just don’t have the money to spend right now.” Also found it interesting that they also came in under budget.

    • Kaizen, by definition, is small improvements in the way work is done, conceived and implemented by those who do it.

      If this is not Kaizen, what is? The results of Kaizen activity often looks like common sense,… after the fact.

      Why is it that the vast majority of work places you can visit today offer this kind of opportunities? In fact, the rarity of such opportunities is a telltale sign of a work place with Kaizen activity.

      • Comment in the SME Society of Manufacturing Engineers discussion group on LinkedIn:

        Absolutely agree!! Thats what Kaizen means. Small continuous improvements driven from the bottom. In the US unfortunately, Kaizen “events” are supposed to be big one time projects.. Not what the Europeans, Indians or the Japanese believe.

  2. @Nauzad: I would like to add to this that it is not just a matter of belief. Kaizen is a Japanese word, and the success of Kaizen activity in Japan is the only reason anybody outside of Japan is paying attention to it. Slapping the label “Kaizen” on something different is therefore misleading and interferes with communication on what Kaizen actually is.

  3. This is an excellent example of empowering employees to make improvements. I would be interested to know the quantifiable results (increased throughput, reduced lost time injuries, improved quality, etc.)

  4. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Dear Mr.Michel- congradulation for the Improvement and i could see the picture. I am sure the Operator must have been a stress releived person. I could visualise another idea by seeing the Photograph…if it is a routine Job, instead of he walking, can he sit on a chair which will move in linear to and fro ina rail adjacent so that he move by pushing by leg / rotating handwheel so that he can handle further ease at Low cost..Try if it feasible

  5. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Nice win, but I would counter that nothing is “..too small an improvement to warrant the attention of engineers or managers…” when Kaizen is authentically applied. (What the heck are the managers and engineers doing anyway..?)
    In fact, frontline workers making and owning performance improvement measures is thee organizational process requisite to creating a humanistic non-stop process of personal and organizational self-renewal.
    Too often managers and engineers talk of “brain power” while failing to understand the true nature of an enterprise centered on continuous improvement(Kaizen) (which has everything to do with the small things that front line workers see).

  6. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I agree that nothing is too small to require consideration but, that any improvement with no return, particularly for the customer, might be a waste of resources that could be working on a more important issue.

  7. Management must see to it that small improvements are made, and that is the reason for organizing and supporting Kaizen activity. There are, however, too many small improvement opportunities for managers or engineers to get personally involved in the design and implementation of each small improvement. If they try, they become bottlenecks to Kaizen.
    There are, of course, many other reasons why small improvements to work should be delegated to those who do it. I am emphasizing this one because it is often omitted: the managers and engineers just don’t have the necessary bandwidth.

  8. Kevin Flynn and Seven Borris have had questions and concerns about the measurability of small improvements and their cost justification. I forwarded Kevin’s question to the manager who allocated the $500/person budget for this kind of activity in the shop, and his response was as follows:

    “I do not have data related to this specific improvement. The only fact I have is the smile on the face of the operator and the manager, which in my experience are delivering tangible results (Morale is for me a starting point for proactive continuous improvement)”

    As I see it, when an improvement is small enough, it takes more effort to quantify its effect than to implement it. If, on this line, you make 50 such improvements, you can quantify their collective impact in terms of productivity, quality, delivery, safety, and morale, but it isn’t worth the effort to drill down to every single one.
    Poka-Yoke is also that way. When you design one, you make sure that it is effective at actually preventing a mistake and that does not add labor. Then you measure the improvement in first-pass yield due to the 100 Poka-Yokes you implemented on the line. It doesn’t pay to measure it for every single Poka-Yoke.

    • Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:


      What about the problem that happens four times a year and costs $50 in losses? Overall, the annual loss is $200.

      If the solution is easy and costs nothing, there might be a case to fix it. But what if the fix involves an redesign or a new piece of equipment that costs $5,000.

      I know I created an extreme example to make the point. But where do we draw the line?

      I believe we need to consider the return on the investment every time as the benefit is not always cash.

      If it was a safety issue, for example, the priority for resolution is not money. Equally, do we allow it if the team has no other project work and the fix does not need a large cash injection – just a time resource.

      What would be a reasonable guide?


      • You set boundaries by giving teams a budget for Kaizen. Anything beyond that budget requires more scrutiny. It is a judgement call, and the limits should vary over time, as teams that have more experience and successes behind them should get bigger budgets.

        The proper way to analyze the economics of a project or a program is through schedules of funds flow that you reduce to parameters like breakeven time and internal rate of return (IRR). It is heavy artillery, to use only where warranted.

        If you have Kaizen activity going on, it is worth periodically reviewing the effort you are putting into it and the results you are getting. You need to do it on a scale where the small improvements add up to something visible, like a productivity increase, or reductions in defect rates, absenteeism, or employee turnover.

        But it is counterproductive to do such analyses on every single improvement item, no matter how small, as it may just cause analysis paralysis.

  9. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Steve (regarding a couple comments back),
    you seem to be saying that a financial return is really the only legitimate criterion used to assess for effective performance improvement strategies.
    I call this the “grim pursuit for immediate relevance”, and falls well short of the true nature of the “learning organization”(CPI) ideal.

    Michel, you seem to be placing a Kaizen process (which is humanistic/worker centered) within a high-control/hierarchical organizational structure. What is your objective: control or innovation?

    • Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:


      I wrote an entire paragraph with some exclusions that I hoped would pre-empt your question. Do you not believe there should be some control in selection of projects and the benefits to the organisation?

      For me, I guess I am a pragmatist.

      I have worked with many companies that have limited funds. Equally, I have worked with companies that have generated wastes that could turn around the profitability of a small company.

      I try to think I am spending my own money. Would I spend cash, for example, respraying my car to remove a minor scratch or would I live with it and spend the money or the time working on something I need. For me there is no contest. At some point I might buy a tin of T-Cut and polish it off, but it would not be a priority.

      It might be that you are a car salesmen and having a pristeen car is a promotional tool. We need to consider all the factors.

      Now I wonder what size of scratch would require an intervention? How could I quantify the damage? It would range from a low priority surface scratch to a scratch that would enable rust and I would repair without any thought.

      Translate the above situation to a machine in a factory. Do we respray every machine to make them look nice? Or, do we only select those that fit a pre-defined criteria? For example, those that are really bad and might make the company look unprofessional to a customer.

      Many LinkedIn posters seem to work with very large companies that seem to have virtually unlimited resources. However, I believe that even they need to be careful with their resources. Indeed, one of the key stages in selecting a 6 Sigma project is ROI.

      I heard a true story about a bank manager that wanted a new conference table. He met with the designers, selected and commissioned the manufacture. When it was ready, he decided that he didn’t like the grain, after all. So he had them make another one and, naturally, he paid for them both.

      The original is still in the stores of the manufacturer. Not, I would say, proper use of the company’s resources.

      I recommend identifying all the issues that face a company and quantifying the impact they have. Then I would evaluate the difficulty and resource (labour, time, complexity, training and cost) needed to fix the problem.

      From that list, I would use the resources I have to achieve the best “return” for the company – which is not only financial, but cost would be a consideration.

      Eventually, the smaller problems will move to the top of the list.

      I would expect professional managers, engineers and technicians to have an appreciation of “cost and consequences”. Add to that, consideration of the skill level of the employees. (Not everyone can work on major issues so the tasks they can resolve will be less complex.) This means we need to have multiple entry points to the “list”. Indeed, 5S teams will have their own list.

      We also need to give a degree of empowerment to the tasks worked on. To enable the teams, I believe they should be trained on the skills they need to solve the specific issues, which provides a general upskilling at the same time – but carries a cost.

      However, I still believe that we need to maintain a degree of realism. The project has to be of value to the company, which means the customer, the employee morale, safety and the bottom line.

      Let me give you nice example I included in my book. A colleague worked in a company that made shampoo. The marketing people spent £400,000 on prototype bottles to decide on the position of the bar code label. This was before the product even entered production.

      She tried to explain that the customer does not care where the label is, as long as it works. So, why did the company spend all the money? Because the marketing people wanted it.

      I believe that almost anywhere on the back of the bottle would probably have good been enough. Not long after, the company started to close plants. I wonder why?

      I would not have allowed the spend on that “project”.


    • @Dale Dearing. Kaizen activity has two purposes, improving performance and enhancing skills, and fulfilling both does require coaching and control.

      When first started in the US, suggestion systems were purely targeted at taking advantage of employees’ ideas to improve performance, compensating them through monetary rewards. These systems did not include any kind of training or expectations that workers would become more valuable contributors as a result of participating.

      Skills development as an explicit goal on a par with performance improvement is characteristic of Kaizen, starting with QC circles in the early 1960s. Circles were not just asked to solve problems, there were trained in the “7 tools of QC” to do it. They were not only successful at getting results, but also at developing technical, project management, leadership, and communication skills.

      But the skills participants learn are valuable only to the extent that projects produce results. Given a blank check, teams will drift towards substituting money for brains. While these were not as egregious examples as Steven’s £400,000 bar code label position study, I have seen teams overspend on unnecessary hand tools.

      You don’t want to micro-manage the activity by demanding cost justifications for every action, no matter how small. But you cannot let teams run without any supervision or coaching at all either, especially when you are starting this activity.

  10. This is a good example of Kaizen! Small improvements, eliminate or reduce waste, build the “know how” and the Lean culture in the culture. This maynot have been the “big win” but this type of actvity leads to the big ones from time to time. Sometimes this can be a “JDI” project, no need to be elaborate…”Just Do It”.

  11. Michel I find your comments very helpful and motivating to continue to identify all
    small and big improvements in the coil processing industry.

  12. Pingback: Kaizen in Japan versus the English-Speaking World | Michel Baudin's Blog

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