Too Good to Be True? Sustaining Kaizen for 20 Years

By Jon Miller Updated on April 22nd, 2018

In podcast #211 we caught up with Jeff Kaas, the President of Kaas Tailored. When we first met, Jeff was 30 and I was 27 years old. He had just taken over the family business. Jeff suspected that he didn’t know what he was doing. Having just started my consulting business, I thought I did. Luckily both sides were open-minded enough to give this thing a try.

From our first meeting, I found Jeff to be contrary, cross-grained, tending to zag when you expected a zig. He was fully committed to the idea of kaizen, but he admitted he didn’t know what it was. When we offered reading materials for his team, he wanted nothing to do with paper. He was determined to educate and engage his management team, but he gave us only 1 hour per week over seven weeks to teach them. Jeff had a sense of urgency, but he was flat against kaizen events or workshops of any sort. He didn’t want to intentionally build a Kaas Production System, even though in effect that is what he now has. We said, “Here is the approach we’ve found works,” and Jeff would say, “I don’t want to do that.” In hindsight, I think it was Jeff’s exquisitely calibrated BS detector that forced the consultants or anyone who “knew better how” to pause and reconsider.

Twenty years later, Jeff’s is the small company enjoying the most successful with lean that I know of. The size of his company has doubled, through economic downturns off-shoring of similar high labor-content manufacturing, and never-ending cost pressure from Fortune 500 customers. Jeff Kaas is the first person I know who really took the lesson to heart that business is an opportunity to grow, learn and serve people. I’ve seen a lot of company owners and executives use these words, but almost always, developing people served the bottom line. For these people growing, learning and serving people was temporarily sidelined, often with lasting consequences, whenever the bottom line was threatened. It helps that Jeff doesn’t answer to shareholders, and that people development and service aligned very closely with who he is as a man of faith.

Here are a few highlights and turning points Jeff shared about his 20-year continuous improvement journey.

“It sounded too good to be true.” Given the constraints of time and Jeff’s contrariness, we had just enough time to teach value versus waste, and squeeze in a follow up session to draw a process map of furniture production with his team. It revealed various opportunities for 50% – 80% improvements. “Most of what you are doing is waste, stop that,” is a simple message but not always easy to absorb and put into action. Jeff saw that kaizen was a way to “get rid of the bad stuff” that prevented his business doing what it was supposed to do.

“It applies, we just have to do it differently.” Kaas Tailored is a high mix, low volume, manual labor-intensive business. Twenty years ago it was even more so. For an unconvinced or resistant person there were plenty of reasons to say, “We’re different, it doesn’t fully apply to us,” even after seeing small wins. Several visits to Toyota later, Jeff lost his patience and decided to do it first, then question. He decided they will copy Toyota and learn what Kaas did wrong, rather than use energy to argue if they should even try.

“Not doing kaizen became a moral issue.” I believe Jeff has kept going through thick and thin because kaizen resonated deeply with his values.  In Jeff’s words, every minute we spend engaged on doing the seven wastes is time stolen from those we care about. Doing something abut waste or not is equal to helping or hurting people in our company, developing people or letting them waste away their potential. If a leader’s deeply-held values don’t resonate with kaizen, Lean or CI by whatever name, long-term success with it is doubtful.

“I’m the dog.” I won’t explain this one. The reader will have to listen to the podcast and decide whether you, too, are the dog.

“We can’t make the corn grow.” This is a great analogy about good processes leading to good results, designing work according to universal principles, etc. but in everyday terms.

“It is a blessing.” Jeff says this about a lot of situations that people would normally curse or bemoan. It’s the attitude of “see problems as opportunities” taken to another level. Learn how having 11 languages spoken in his company has upped their visual management game.

If all of this isn’t enough, learn the intriguing and contrarian answers to these questions…

  • Why the opposite of batch flow is not one-piece flow
  • Why Jeff sees kaizen events as a form of overproduction
  • Why Jeff sees “Lean” as a four-letter word
  • Why being a leader is nothing to be proud of

I’ve been learning from Jeff for the past 20 years. He’s always gotten it done in surprising ways. His example as a leader and adult human also gave me courage to find a better balance between work, family and community. Jeff is a bit contrary, strong-willed, cross-grained. If you visit Jeff’s wood shop, wood that has cross grains, spirals or knots is difficult to cut and shape. Ironically, wood that is intentionally cross-grained, like plywood, can be stronger, more resistant to warping due to moisture, and more durable. Jeff resisted easy answers, refused to accept that it didn’t fully apply, and found ways to deeply ingrain continuous improvement both in his own life and in his business.


Learn more about Kaas Tailored and how Jeff uses his company to teach others how to build cultures of continuous improvement.

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