There is an expression in Japanese, 「ちりも積もれば山となる」 ”Dust accumulates to form a mountain.” (chiri mo tsumoreba yama to naru). While this may not be geologically correct, it carries a deep truth that lean practitioners will recognize through experience. Taken positively, this is the essential spirit of kaizen, that small changes repeated over time result in massive improvements. Taken negatively, it means that small, persistent losses result in huge losses.
This sign hanging on a water pipe in my hotel room asks the guest to save water, informing that a tap open just one millimeter results in 1,390 liters of lost water per day. Dust accumulates to form a mountain. With one simple motion, or the replacement of an old gasket, we can save thousands of liters per day. This thinking taken from the level of our homes to our communities to cities to countries and globally can help solve shortages of all sorts.
The importance of metering the smallest losses is that action begins with awareness. A vague request to “save the planet” may appeal to our idealism but “save 1,390 liters per day per leaky tap” makes us sit up and take notice. While I’m not confident that any of us can save the planet in the next 24 hours, I know we can all save a lot of water. We need more simple signs like these. How many BTUs are lost through leaky windows? How many kwh of energy are wasted per square meter of unoccupied but lit and heated or cooled office space? How many k Euro is wasted per year in our leaky compressed air we learn to ignore within our factories? The list is virtually endless.
Too many times we hear that it is not important to measure the results of the small kaizens because it is too hard to accurately assess the impact of small changes, or because it is more about engaging people and their creativity, or because too much talk of cost savings makes people uncomfortable. But this is a mistake. We need to speak openly, early and often about our losses. And we need to meter even the smallest of them.
If you are not convinced that it is worth the effort to accurately measure and meter the impact of these smallest losses on your business, the planet or your life, consider these three things:
The smallest losses will forever be with us. By definition there will always be a smaller loss. We only notice the biggest losses, and if we become complacent, will be unable to recognize that a lot of room for improvement still remains. We need to continuously focus our attention on smaller and smaller losses. This is a core skill of a lean practitioner and one of the reasons TPS sensei will insist on observing, timing and documenting even hours-long work in seconds. This is so you will be ready when it is time to use slow-motion video and make improvements in milliseconds.
The smallest losses work hard while you sleep. Like water in a Seattle basement, the smallest always find their way back in. This is not because our countermeasures are insufficient or because it is futile to try to fix the smallest leaks, but because everything tends towards entropy. It’s one of of the mysteries of our universe, but we can’t deny that things become less and less ordered as we go down time’s arrow. Thanks to this immutable second law of thermodynamics, lean practitioners, maid services and metering device designers have careers.
The smallest losses are the easiest to stop. The great news is that as with any problem, early detection and countermeasure at the point of occurrence to address the simplest root cause is simplest. Setting a goal to recover 507,350 liters of water per household per year would seem like a gargantuan task for many of us, requiring sacrifices of all sorts, until we realize that this is just one little twist of a tap.
All it takes to make a mountain from dust is to practice metering, displaying the facts and reminding ourselves that there are many kaizens we can do all around us every day by paying attention to the smallest details.
The symbol in the expression above for “mountain” 「山」 combined with the symbol for “to accumulate” or “to stack up” 「積」 makes the word for yamazumi 「山積」.