Before Kaizen, Ask “If You Had Enough, Would You Know?”

I visited the 35th annual Seattle Folklife Festival yesterday, enjoying a couple of hours with my family before diving into a very busy couple of weeks. There was great music, passable weather and more hippies than you can shake a stick at. There was also a lesson to be had in kaizen and Lean thinking among all of the jugglers and jug bands.
But first, I want to help out a few great bands who were kind enough to contribute their time and gas money for this community event.
At the Johnny Cash tribute many bands took the stage, each delivering 2 or 3 wonderful and unique renditions of the Man in Black’s songs.
A slide guitar and upright bass duo from Canada that called themselves the Derelictones were a hybrid between Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. They performed a convincing and original Long Black Veil.
Hank Angel and the Island Devils are a group of young guys who looked like the Stray Cats but played like nobody’s business and did justice to Johnny Cash’s songs.
One of the many street performers called Below the Salt played eerie and melancholy music on a accordion, washboard, a saw, banjo and washtub bass. The washtub bass (an instrument made of an aluminum washtub, rope and broomstick) caught my eye as an example of low cost, just-good-enough-to-get-the-job-done technology.
You don’t come here to read my reviews of not-so-well-known bands, you say? Where’s the lesson in kaizen and Lean manufacturing? I’m getting there. But let’s go back to the washtub. A large bumper sticker on the washtub asked “If you had enough, would you know?”
While this was clearly a political statement against rampant consumerism and possibly other things (my clue was washtub bass player’s bare feet and borderline hobo outfit), it’s also a central question in Lean manufacturing, Lean healthcare or Lean administration. After all, kaizen is about doing more with less.
The idea of Just in Time, one of the pillars of the Toyota Production System and a driving force in Toyota’s economic model, is to deliver just what the customer wants, just when they want it, just in the right amount at the lowest possible cost. In other words, it is doing just enough.
Most businesses that are going concerns will deliver what the customers want when the customers want it, usually in the right amount. The big difference with one that is practicing Lean principles is that this most business do this through “Just in Case” business practices while Lean companies do it Just in Time. If you don’t know what “enough” is to your ultimate customer and each downstream process before them, you costs are higher than they need to be.
At a more concrete level, all a kanban system does is to provide an answer to the question “if you had enough, would you know?” In a true pull system you would know because the kanban quantities limit the amount of material in process to the bare minimum. When you have enough, you have no production kanban returning to you. You do not produce. If you do not have enough, a production kanban signal that you need to make more.
The reason why kaizen can generate real savings year after year is because most of what we do is waste. When we implement Lean manufacturing, we start out by stabilizing the process so that we have a safe process that gives the customer the right what is needed, on time. Then we cut out waste so that we can do it with less resources, or just “enough” and no more.
Of course “enough” now under ideal conditions may not be “enough” tomorrow when the machine breaks or Jimmy doesn’t show up on second shift. This is where you do TPM on the machine or begin cross-training others in Jimmy’s standard work. Most managers in companies that do not have a kaizen culture based on PDCA problem solving are never asked “If you had enough, would you know?” by their bosses because job #1 is to make sure you have more than enough so that you’re never caught holding the bag when the machine breaks and the customer calls to complain.
People often think that kaizen is anti-automation or anti-computers or anti-ERP systems. Not so. Kaizen simply abhors spending money to automate a process before it has been reduced as close to “enough” as possible and no more. Too often this is not the case.
Speaking of enough, the Lean manufacturing and process improvement toolbox probably does not need another three letter acronym or a “number-letter” combination. But there is one that has been neglected. Most Lean thinkers have 4M, 5S, 5 Big Losses, 7 wastes, 7 QC Tool, 7 New Tools, 8D, 10 commandments, etc. in their kaizen glossary. Most are missing what we call the “3 Sets”. This is a translation from Japanese “san tei” where san = the number three and tei = “to fix” or “to set” as in to make a decision.
The 3 Sets discipline is a matter of “setting” and following rules for the three conditions of “where, how many, what” or “where, how many, what direction” or “where, how many, when” depending on what business you are in or what process you are attempting to “set”.
The 3 Sets is much more basic than even 5S, though if you do 3 Sets properly you take care of most of your 5S needs. If you apply 3 Sets to all of your processes I guarantee you will save at least 5 years in your Lean transformation (though forever minus five years is still a long journey).
At a fundamental level, those who can answer “yes” to “If you had enough, would you know?” are the ones who will compete and win long-term based on a superior operational model, whether you call it a kaizen culture, Lean thinking or just good management.
So save yourself some time. Before you embark on your next breakthrough kaizen event, six sigma project, culture change initiative, value stream-based transformation, or whatever you choose to call it, hit the pause button and ask “If you you had enough, would you know?”