Without understanding, improvement is unlikely

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….

This article first appeared online on May 9, 2018, at Quality Digest, a Kaizen Institute Online partner.

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