The Leisure to do Kaizen

By Jon Miller Published on July 7th, 2008

The most difficult thing about sustaining a lean implementation to the point where it becomes an indelible part of the way of working is not about understanding the techniques and methods of the Toyota Production System, not about bringing people along to the new way of thinking, or bout getting sufficient education in place to understand just how much more there is to learn. The most difficult thing about sustaining a kaizen culture is simply finding the time to do kaizen every day.
Where will we find the time? As consultants, we hear this all of the time. We politely set aside this concern with conviction that there is plenty of slack within a given workday, once some customer-focused prioritizing and basic stabilization activities have taken place to replace the fire-fighting with daily management by fact on the gemba. And yet for people in the thick of the old way of working (the current or non-lean way) the reality is that time to do kaizen can be hard to come by.
This is especially true when we are given goals that seem to be in conflict: get immediate results today with the same or less resources while building long-term capability by enabling people to employ their creativity through kaizen. Lacking specific and effective mechanisms for involving people in kaizen as part of their daily work, this can create a conflict. The same resources needed to address today’s problems or serve today’s customers are the ones needed to make process improvements for tomorrow. Companies deal with this in various ways, typically by building up the infrastructure to do kaizen, be it a kaizen office, project teams or 5S and kaizen suggestion initiatives. But ultimately these resources are subject to being pulled away to address short-term needs and kaizen can stagnate, if we are not careful.
In the book toyota shiki howaito karaa kakushin (トヨタ式ホワイトカラー革新 Toyota Way “White-Collar Innovation”) the TPS consultant, student of Taiichi Ohno and author Tetsuo Kondo relates a story from Toyota in the 1970s that illustrates this. He began studying TPS under Ohno and his disciple Kikuo Suzumura. During a particularly busy period, Suzumura visited the body weld line that Kondo was responsible for. The famously hard-hitting Suzumura scolded Kondo him because it was evident that kaizen activity had not progressed at all in the area. In response to Kondo’s excuse that “We are busy,” Suzumura retorted “You must feel that kaizen is a biological need, just like eating and sleeping. Otherwise you won’t be creative and you can’t do kaizen. Do it now!” And further, he said “If you have the will to do kaizen, the time to do kaizen emerges by itself.” Reflecting on his words that it was not a lack of time but a lack of a will to do kaizen, Kondo worked until late that evening fixing various problems on the line. Thereafter he found the time to do kaizen each day with his team.
Being in the midst of a particularly busy time myself, these words from Suzumura struck home. Even without working until midnight there is no doubt we can find time to do kaizen if we have the will.
As leaders and managers, it is important to remember that we are in a position to do three things to enable a kaizen culture. First, require kaizen of all of our subordinates. The base job description within a lean organization includes doing the work and improving the work. Second, we must think together with them to positively overcome obstacles and challenges to implementing their ideas. In business it is easier for us to give freely of our wits than of our wallet. Third, we must give them the leisure to implement their creative ideas.
This notion of leisure to do kaizen comes from a quote by the poet Ezra Pound said, “The only thing one can give an artist is leisure in which to work. To give an artist leisure is actually to take part in his creation.” We say that the person who does the work is the expert in that process and in a sense is the “artist” whose creativity will lead to kaizen. Leaders should think of themselves as “patrons of kaizen” just as there are wealthy “patrons of the arts.” We can all do kaizen, but the more valuable contribution of a leader is to give others the leisure to do kaizen.

  1. JWDT

    July 10, 2008 - 12:54 pm

    Great post!
    One clarifying question I have is, which Kaizen are you speaking of (i.e. the ‘continuous incremental improvement culture’ or the ‘kaizen blitz’)?

  2. Jon Miller

    July 10, 2008 - 4:43 pm

    Kaizen in general, to include both types you mentioned.

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