Tips for Lean Managers

My Early Kaizen Days

By Jon Miller Published on September 27th, 2006

Thirteen years ago this month I nervously stepped into the lobby of the Sheraton at Hartford, Connecticut airport. It was the first day of my first Shingijutsu kaizen event. I did not know what to expect. I remember the first words out of the mouth of Mr. Nakao to me were something to the effect of “You gonna be able to cut it, greenhorn?”
I remember being so nervous standing up there while the sensei was giving his opening speech that I stared at the ceiling in an effort to concentrate on his words, rather than look at the audience full of managers and directors. We accomplished a lot that week. The comments at the closing presentation by the team members and the sensei were very moving. The week was a blur but by the end my head was as clear as if it had been dunked in cold water. I was hooked on kaizen.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in my early kaizen days was not one of kaizen but of basic communication. I learned to economize my words. Interpreting can be tiring, and we’re not paid by the word. So I learned to say it in fewer words. I learned to stop and ask “Do you understand?” before going on and on, and risk repeating the whole thing if the listener said “Huh?” at the end. My customers were the people that were talking through me, and my breath was my limited resource. So I learned to kaizen how I used my words.
I was called “the quiet consultant” shortly before being kicked out in favor or a more vocal and energetic consultant at industrial conglomerate “P” a few years ago. It can be better to over-communicate rather than be spare with words. Even if what you are saying is spot-on, there is much more to communication than words. Body language and facial expression alone can by 80% or more of what people actually hear. That was a different sort of lesson in communication.
Why reminisce about my early kaizen days? I received an e-mail today from a Lean Six Sigma Kaizen Master at the Ford Motor Company who figured out that we had worked together in my early kaizen days. He correctly remembered me as the guy who asked for water without ice, and not receiving it had to pick the ice out, at the dinners with the kaizen sensei.
This is an odd thing to be remembered for. But there’s a good reason for this. Ice-filled glasses annoyed me because interpreting makes you thirsty, and when the glass is 70% ice you run out quick and end up crunching ice, which annoys the sensei. The other thing I learned quickly in my early kaizen days: you don’t annoy the sensei.

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