Last week I made a stunning discovery. There are literally bucketfulls of water in the air around me. For months this winter, I thought nothing of mopping up the condensation off of the windows every morning using paper towels. To put this in perspective, this involved 30+ individual panes of windows in 6 or sometimes 7 different rooms. The process took no more than a few minutes per room, perhaps 10-15 min total. Although this was a new activity for me, I accepted this was just the way things were in the older house which we had moved into a bit over a year ago. For the past week, astonishing amounts of water have been pulled from the air and down the drain, with the help of our newly acquired 70-pint dehumidifier.
I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t see waste in a business. My working career started out a couple of decades ago with kaizen consultants. Their every conversation and observation seemed to touch on seeing and getting rid of waste. No doubt there was a time prior to meeting them when I was ignorant of waste. But I never made that transition from working in a traditional job and not seeing waste, to lean exposure and seeing waste all around me. The transition was from ignorant student to a working person who could see waste. Finally, with the help of the dehumidifier, I now know how that transition from “not seeing to seeing” feels. Although water vapor isn’t always visible, I am now fully aware of it. It is a stunning difference in perspective.
Sometimes we can see waste around us, especially if defects and inventory are piling up and obscuring our view, just as we can see the water vapor in the air when it is foggy outside. But this is not generally the case day-to-day. It is also limited to situations where we have physical products to inventory or scrap. In knowledge work, the “fog” of waste may be transparent, or disguised as normal work. We grow to accept it. Just like the water vapor that makes up the relative humidity of a room in our house, in these situations waste is literally in the air. Until it condenses into damaging droplets, we don’t take notice.
When the amount of water vapor is in the air reaches relative maximum, it must become precipitate, or become rain. I’ve noted that when it is raining outside the reported relative humidity is between 80% and 100%. In my house, the relative humidity was 65%. This is about 20% higher than is should be to prevent condensation on cold window panes at night, moisture damage to wood windows, even things like warping of pianos. What if we could measure wasted time, effort, and money in the same way? Out of a possible $1 of input, what is the healthy and correct percentage that should contribute to the bottom line?
A kaizen team redesigning processes to get the waste “out of the air” is like the dehumidifier, turning rooms full of damp air into buckets of water. Continuous improvement is important becasue not all problems can be permandently fixed. Root causes may not always be addressable. There will be a certain amount of moisture in a house in which people breathe, boil water, cook and shower, with windows closed to keep out cold and dry outside air. The available long-term measures are detection, correction and control of humidity. This is the same for lean – it’s an endless pursuit of better because there will always be root causes in systems out of our reach currently.
Ironically, the triggering event to buying the dehumidifier was a consultant visit. To be precise, they were two door-to-door salesmen of replacement windows. They asked if I had wood windows. Yes, I did. Did they have a lot of condensation? Yes, they did. Was damage to these windows a concern? Yes, it was. Would I be interested in a free assessment? About how many windows might need replacing? When can we have an hour of your time for an assessment? And so it went until I realized that rather than spending thousands of dollars on new windows, we needed to look at the problem closer to the source. This led me to measure and draw down the humidity in the house.
A few days ago my wife looked at me and asked a few times, “Why didn’t we do this much earlier?” How often have leaders and workers alike asked this, after their first positive lean, kaizen, continuous improvement experience? Now, I also know how that feels.