How to Make Time for Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 21st, 2017

In the early stages of exploring kaizen and other formal continuous improvement systems people always ask, “Where will we find time for kaizen in addition to all of our other work?” Ideally kaizen should be something done not in addition to your work but as part of the work itself. The simplest way to explain kaizen is “a temporary change in doing things that you suspect is better”. The provisional improvement requires further proof through trial and error. Kaizen is not separate from but part of work itself because only through working in the kaizened process can we disprove or prove that the new way is in fact better. Kaizen is a mindset change about how we spend our working time. If some part of the work we do could be described as “mindless” then we have found an opportunity to slip in some idle thoughts such as “How could I do this better?”

Let the mind wander into kaizen. If we must daydream it might as well be about practical ways to change what we are doing towards our individual and team goals. How do we train our mind to wander into kaizen? Some of us have hobbies that we love. When these involve information such as reading, playing video games or following sports, we find creative ways to fit these into our daily work schedule, often thanks to information technology. What is more amazing are the innovative ways people weave their hobbies into their day without the internet. I have seen a dandy in a cowboy hat practicing his line dancing as he assembled a jet engine. That’s one way to make time for your hobby.

But unless we are self-employed or have highly flexible work schedules, when and how much time we spend on kaizen is determined by our employers. There are three classic ways that organizations make time for improvements:

The first is to budget the time formally. This could be to include kaizen within the hours of training and development each person receives. This may be 20 hours per year per person, 40 hours or more depending on the company and the position. Another approach is to set the resource for kaizen based on number such as 2% of total revenue. The benefit of this approach is that it is simple and straightforward. The downside is that it requires these available resources to budget towards kaizen. As resources allow, simple is best and this approach is most successful in the long-term.

However making a budget for training and development is risky because often training budgets are the first to be cut when times are tough. Too often when we need to invest in people and their ideas most, we cut back. So it is best if the budget for kaizen is not part of a comprehensive training budget but rather something that cannot be taken away.

Make kaizen part of everyone’s job description. No matter how creative or at what level of executive management, everyone does repetitive work. It is just a question of whether the repetition happens every 30 seconds as in an electronics factory assembly line or every 12 months as annual plans are set for and deployed. In most cases work cycles repeat at least monthly if not weekly for everyone. This provides a great number of opportunities to make plans, take action, deliberately reflect on the results and adjust course. This is kaizen and everyone can find the time when it is part of their job to do so.

The second traditional approach is to do find spare time to devote to kaizen activity. This may be idle time immediately before or after shifts, as paid or volunteer overtime, or opportunistically during unplanned downtime. The benefit is that time previously wasted can now be used for innovation and education. The challenges include the need for a certain level of self-direction within teams to coordinate small group continuous improvement activity, the potentially unpredictable nature of “spare time” becoming available, and the inevitable decisions to squeeze out the waste of the consistent “spare time” by scheduling routine paying work within it.

This may drive the behavior of looking for improvement projects that are big enough to justify a large expenditure or justify a set overhead associated with trainers. There is the possibility that the potential for many small improvements is overlooked. This happens because it is the job of engineers and managers to make these financial calculations and plans, rather than the people closest to and who actually do the work. The kaizen system must allow time for and enable improvements of all sizes.

Design kaizen activity to take less time. The reason kaizen events are held over several days and conducted as a team is that big, rapid change requires focus and preparation. Once the people, materials, data and support are ready, a small group of people can apply some basic lean principles to make massive changes. However most kaizen activity requires much less overhead to manage. We find time to do kaizen when they are designed to take less time through agreement on scope of changes to be made, the authority to make changes within this scope, and a coach close by who can guide the vague problem into a well-articulated kaizen idea.

The third traditional approach is to “earn” the time by creating spare time through kaizen; some or all of the hours or dollar saved is reinvested in continuous improvement activity. This third approach can result in a virtuous cycle, but contains the risks associated with the effort and difficulty in accurately measuring the financial impact of every small kaizen. In the early going some organizations will create a budget for lean implementation based on the expected savings, creating a justification much like one would for buying a new piece of equipment, an enterprise software system or building a new site. While this is not a bad way to get a major change effort started, it is not appropriate for long-term sustained daily improvement that we are looking for as part of a kaizen culture. This approach driven by return on investment also creates a blind spot against unforeseen opportunities, innovations and chronic problems poorly understood or perceived to be too small to be worth addressing.

Do kaizen before you have to. Taiichi Ohno urged us all to “do kaizen when times are good” because when times are tough you might not make time at all. These words seem prophetic today, spoken over 20 years ago. Many cultures have expressions such as “Make hay while the sun shines” or “Strike while the metal is hot” but what Ohno is saying is somewhat different. If we reflect on what Toyota has done recently, they indeed struck the hot metal and made hay. What they failed to do was to check the quality of the new alloy or to ask whether the horses really needed more hay in the first place. Times were good and Toyota didn’t have to do kaizen. The world’s greatest manufacturer spent a great deal of their resource on global capacity expansion, technological breakthrough and material cost rationalization. Some of that time may have been better spent shoring up tried and true processes, when times were still good.

Kaizen structures work so that we can stop doing those things the customer will not pay for, by taking out the steps that add no value, ultimately ending efforts that do not further our purpose, and taking away what makes work less fun. Beg, steal or borrow, the first step to setting kaizen in motion is to make time to let the mind ponder the problem. Reading this while at work? Then we’re on our way.

  1. Tim McMahon

    February 9, 2010 - 5:05 am

    I have found especially when starting a lean transformation that making it part of the job description and formally budgeting time very effective. I also encourgae a charter for each kaizen so that there is a plan including resources, time committement, and goal with improvement measurables. Propering planning can make all activities more effective.
    All great points John.

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