The Importance of Metering the Smallest Losses

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.

Bonus:
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」.

9 Comments

  1. Redge

    January 27, 2011 - 6:28 am

    I agree that waste is forever present. Unfortunately, in too many cases, the waste will continue if the cost to repair is greater than the losses incurred.
    Excellent post and certainly serves to remind us that the greatest wastes can be found in the smallest places.
    Thank you for sharing, Redge

  2. alfredo

    January 27, 2011 - 7:18 am

    I´ve just imagine all the sign that could be hanging in the air pipes,water pipes, electric lines, and even the production pipe due to all all the small down times that we are use to have in the Gemba.
    We can not give up in stopping those smalls leaks, they can be translated in money for our companies and a social responsability

  3. leansimulations

    January 27, 2011 - 8:52 am

    “Dust accumulates to form a mountain.”
    I will definitely use that quote in my next training session.
    Just remember people will get frustrated if you concentrate on the wrong things. Don’t ignore the waterfall while you’re fixing the drip.

  4. Redge

    January 28, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    We also need to be cognizant of the scope of the problem. Just because one tap drips, does this mean we need to buy signs for every tap in the company? Think of all the resources (internal and external) that suddenly become engaged (wasting indirect resources) to stop the drip.
    To address air leaks, I have implemented what I term “snakes and ladders” tours on the weekends. We listen for the “hiss”, get the ladders, and repair the leaks. Otherwise, we fix them as needed.
    Certainly training our employees to increase awareness and establishing effective policy can go a long way to correcting these types of issues. We need to consider and maintain a reasonable perspective with regard to the cost and impact of the cure versus the cause.

  5. Sudarshan

    January 29, 2011 - 9:25 am

    excellent post.
    On a completely different note, I recently joined a company as an intern and was asked to assist in a TPM/improvement project the plant was undertaking for one of its 4cyl engine test beds. So I thought the best approach would be to observe the beds for a couple of days (a month I read in “The Toyota Way” that this is called Ohno Circle) . I noted down the various problems faced by the operators like misplaced bits, setup issues, readjustment of tapers,etc. Since may of the problems seemed to be due to poor assembly I went to the assembly line. There I noticed large inventories, large number of engines needing rectification, shortage issues and engines moving out without any checks on them. This led me to read a few books on Lean such as those by Womack and Liker. I realised there was an inherent flaw in the mass production process that was taking place at the company and any TPM/process level kaizen would be futile without continuous flow or a lean system in place, in fact the process/TPM could have a negative effect or be a wasteful activity.
    Now my biggest problem is how to convince my boss that a lean system has to be put in place before TPM/Process level kaizen can be done. I have tried telling him in many ways – I drew the value stream, told him about creating a takt image. But he just brushes them off and continuously asks me what improvements in the process can be made.
    In short he is hell bent on doing “TPM/Improvement” without putting in place the necessary systems.
    My question is what should I do? (I did read your Ninja Kaizen article but it hardly applies to my situation since I am not an employee)
    P.S Sorry for the long post but I am unable to move forward and need some guidance.

  6. Joseph

    February 7, 2011 - 11:54 am

    Sudarshan.
    You ask in your post, “What should I do”.
    If you will accept advice from an older person that has mentored many young graduates that have listened to me and with the passage of time they have moved up the ladder of management to dizzy heights.
    The first thing that a new young person in a company must do is to prove to the people that are above them that they can actually do the job that they are being paid for. You must earn the respect of the people above you before you can expect them to listen to your NEW IDEAS.
    I am sure that you mean well but you must understand that people above you have all been in the same position that you find yourself in.
    You are trying to run before you have proved that you can actually walk.
    You refer to the “Ohno Circle”. In all Japanese training systems the novice first sits and listens to the Wise Master. He does not dare tell his Master what to do.
    If you want the Western take of your dilemma this is it. There is a sign over the public bar in the PUB that I drink in that says in big bold letters, ” The manager may not always be right but he is always the MANAGER “. Don’t try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. She will soon put you in your place. In this world wide recession you should be glad to have a job, do not loose it by trying to run the company on your first day.
    If you want to show how good you are then complete the tasks that you are given in half the expected time and at double the expected quality. Now that would be a person that I may think of listening to.

  7. Hiroaki

    February 8, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    Hi Jon:
    I agree 100% with you.
    Let me remind that a large japanese company that makes chemical seals for engines was originated by a person that worried about the small oil drops that was leaking from the engine oil carters of japanese cars in the hard days after WWII.

  8. R.Dhamotharan

    February 8, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    Thought provoking post. This will create awareness among each person come across this post.Even small tings matter as far as depletion of rare resources is concerned.We ignore most of the time this type of losses in our day to day life.We must join hands with global community to this important social cause.Please share this with as many friends as possible.

  9. Allan

    February 18, 2011 - 5:19 am

    Joseph
    You hit the nail on the head with your advice to us (including Sudarshan). Also, it is wise to remember that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail (or something like that), however, some nails are smaller and go in a lot easier than the big honking spikes. (Ahh…analytical thinking and Continuous Improvement are a match made in heaven)
    All the best gang
    Allan