“More important than the actual improvements that individuals contribute, the true value of continuous improvement is in creating an atmosphere of continuous learning and an environment that not only accepts, but actually embraces change,” wrote Jeffrey K. Liker in “The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer.”
For a prevailing spirit of continuous improvement and innovation, world-class industrial production and fabrication owes something to the management tactic kaizen.
Kaizen is a Japanese word denoting “change for the better” as well as continuous improvement. In it, workers close to the operation collaborate to improve a process. Kaizen in Toyota, for example, involves line personnel who may stop production or a process upon discovering an abnormality. They suggest improvements to resolve it.
After Toyota began manufacturing automobiles in the U.S., the technique spread.
The Mayo Clinic used kaizen to reduce surgical site infections and infections resulting from surgeries. When the Ford Motor Co. was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2006, its then-CEO Alan Mulally placed his bet on kaizen. Nike has used kaizen methods to eliminate waste from all facets of its supply chain and manufacturing.
A real example
At Miller Fabrication Solutions, we embrace kaizen — because it works. We use it all the time It really is work by the workers, for the workers and for the success of the company.
When one of Miller’s machining cells ran into a problem, we formed a kaizen event. A machining spindle worked on multiple parts at once and was quite fast, but the cycle time of machining the parts became quicker than the set-up time. Enter Miller’s kaizen team.
The team incorporated lean principles and analyzed the steps and processes. They rearranged the set-up space and reduced time and motion by seeking parts and materials. They carefully went through the layout and motions, trimming excess and realigning positions. The result: set-up time went from 13 minutes to a streamlined 5.5 minutes.
For a kaizen event, a cross-functional team begins with a project charter. This outlines the scope, with a set time of three days. Initially, the event may include training team members on lean manufacturing. By the first afternoon, the team has a grip on what problem they’re trying to solve. Days two and three are action days, focused on shaping the improvement.
Ideal for any situation
The principle is simple, yet effective. If embraced properly, it can be used to improve any process. Years back, in lieu of donating to the New York Food Bank, Toyota lent its engineers for a kaizen event. They cut soup kitchen wait times from 90 minutes to 18 and reduced the time to fill food bags from 11 minutes to six.
Toyota is refocusing on kaizen, the principle it fostered and helped bring to America, as it seeks to match innovations of companies like Tesla and Google. Akio Toyoda, third-generation president, said at a press conference: “Toyota must get back to its old self.”
Perhaps, now is the time for others to follow and embrace kaizen for greater productivity. We certainly are.
Eric D. Miller is the president of Miller Fabrication Solutions. Eric represents the third generation of Miller family leadership. The Brookville, Pennsylvania-based company is a metal fabrication partner for innovative OEMs with a global presence.