Visualizing the Benefit of Small Improvement Steps

One of the foundational principles of kaizen is that one takes many small steps toward the ideal condition, continually. The strength of this approach is that by keeping the steps small it is both psychologically and physically easier to take action, causing a positive feedback loop as people are encouraged to take more small steps. However there are also weakness with kaizen as improving in small steps.

Results do not always immediately follow and not all of us, or our customers and bosses, are patient enough to allow us to continue taking small improvement steps. Leaders must remember the principle of “good process, good results” and allow people to continue on the path of kaizen. This is critical to enable learning from mistakes and to up-skill problem solving. Making simplistic and sub-optimized cost calculations is a huge pitfall, resulting in the decision to cut training time, kaizen time, or team time when the kaizen results seem to be coming too slowly. The process may need to be revisited, but not stopped.

Another challenge to kaizen as a series of small steps is that it seems impractical or impossible to solve huge problems in this way. Problems that are beyond our immediate sphere of control, are too complex, or are too far away from our gemba may seem to be difficult to address by kaizen as a series of small improvement steps. This is where the speed of the Plan, Do, Check, Act learning cycle via small steps is as important as the impact of any individual improvement. Often large, complex problems are simply agglomerations of many small problems, or entwined problems with common root causes. Approaching them fearlessly trough small practical improvements can not only show us a path forward, it can give us courage to continue.

We must trust in the process and continue, but we need more than faith that the small steps we are taking work, we need evidence. Perhaps more so than for large kaizen projects or week-long kaizen events, visualizing the benefit of small improvement steps is essential. Once a value or impact from an improvement has been established, all efforts should be made to add these up until the nearest meaningful visual description of the benefit can be clearly identified. A common manufacturing example is to show one piece of scrap reduced per machine per month saves the company saves the equivalent of a new car.

Five hotel bath towels hung to dry rather than sent to the cleaning service equate to planting one tree. To someone who appreciates the benefits of trees, that is plenty of motivation to reuse hotel towels. However, this visual also raises disturbing questions about why it is necessary to kill one tree for every five towels laundered. Without visualizing the benefit of the small improvement of reusing the towel even such a question, which could lead to the next kaizen breakthrough, would not have been asked.