Experience Kaikaku, Day 5: What I Learned about Kaizen

The reason we call this trip the Japan Kaikaku Experience is because this learning experience takes place in Japan and because a “kaikaku” or “transformation” happens in people’s heads by the end of the week. The kaikaku for me this time was deepening my understanding of how the managers we met this week viewed kaizen.
Broadly, kaizen to Japanese managers means any activity that improves the bottom line by cutting out waste. The 5-day kaizen events is nearly unknown, and instead there is a variety of ways kaizen is done from suggestion systems, “jishuken” improvements of work through 1-hour per week or 2 and 3 month projects, as well as management cost reduction kaizen activities that last 3 to 6 months. Kaizen is an integral part of managing as well as working.
Here is a selection of questions (Q) from our international team on the Lean manufacturing benchmarking trip, and the answers (A) of Japanese managers from various host companies. I wrote these down because although in each case they may appear to be very simple answers, the difference in assumptions and thinking between the person asking and the person answering was very enlightening in every case:
Q: How do you continue to get ideas from people after many years of kaizen?
A: Ask your newest employees what makes their job hard.
Q: How do you get people involved in kaizen?
A: Participating in kaizen is not an option, it’s part of the job.
Q: What tools, such as six sigma, do you use to do kaizen?
A: We use two tools: a video camera and a stop watch.
Q: Is it difficult to get new ideas for kaizen?
A: No. Every month the line speed changes and the production situation changes, so there are always new ideas.
Q: What are some of the keys to successfully using the kaizen philosophy to improve the bottom line?
A: Think “now things are the worst”. Even after you just did a great kaizen and you reduced cost don’t spend any time basking in the glory, but rather think that this is the new low point from which to keep improving.
Q: What motivates the suggestion system?
A: It is a communication tool. The important thing is to make improvements and be conscious that you are doing it.
One example of this from the PR department at Toyota was the local hotel list they provided to out of town visitors. The kaizen was to put the website addresses of hotels instead of the actual hotel contact information on a piece of paper. This allowed individuals visiting Toyota to choose their hotel by viewing the website. The savings are somewhat dubious, but it counts as the kaizen idea for that month, and maybe next month or a month after that it will lead to a money saving idea from this person.
These are some of the biggest impressions from this trip that gave me the kaikaku experience and refreshed my thinking about kaizen.