By Greg | April 10, 2009
During the exciting days of learning about and implementing the Toyota System I asked one of our youngest workers – Lukas, what he would change in our production plant if he owned it. His reply was: “I’ve never thought about it.” But he started looking around and thinking about it. I know this because a few days later he shared his first idea of a small but significant improvement. About once a month our cars were loaded on a container and shipped out. Our forklift would lift three cars held together by specially designed metal construction, with 3 workers on each side making sure the cars were safe. The most dangerous part was the place between the gate of our building and the container which was standing outside. Lukas stated the obvious: “The reason why seven people are needed to carry the cars out of the building instead of just one instead of one is because of that step and the bad quality pavement right outside. If we fix it – only the forklift operator will be needed to take the cars out of the building.”
We fixed the problem (with very low costs) and from then on our monthly shipments were less costly and, who knows – we might have avoided some nasty accident which we were just asking for with the uneven pavement . This is how the era of Kaizen began in our company. From that point forward our production plant was not run with 3 heads and 60+ hands, but with 30+ heads (and at least one extra pair of hands that no longer avoided getting dirty – yes the Toyota System totally changed my attitude about my role as a manager).
You can imagine what implementation of this improvement must have meant for Lukas. I think it changed that young worker even more than the question “So, what would you change?”. After that experience he started treating the company as his own home and he got to the point that he had ideas for improvement on a daily basis. Others started joining him and gradually our work stations were becoming less dangerous, more pleasant and more efficient. The whole production process now makes much more sense than before and it just feels like a more friendly place. How nice it is to know that next week things will make even more sense and our workers will work not harder but smarter and perhaps safer. Probably the greatest outcome of Kaizen is that the workers are happier because our plant is no longer a battle field between the management and the workers but they feel appreciated and have the appropriate sense of pride in the difference they make.
Kaizen, which in Japanese means good (zen) change (kai) is a philosophy that motivates people to constantly improve their surroundings. I personally find the idea not only inspiring but also inspired. I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The Communistic system discouraged people from making improvements and so people seemed to have gradually lost their natural tendency to try to make things better. As a result I grew up in a pretty gray and very stagnant environment. Then a simple electrician and a few other workers in some shipyard decided to change a few things (who gave them that faith that their efforts might actually destroy the Communistic system?!). Their determination led to a total change of the political and economic system which gave way to progress. Now – two decades later – everything around me is in constant movement. Pretty much everything is improving. People are happier – they seem to be more confident in their own abilities. Many of them are the same people who back then – during Communism, would just go through the motions but now, they are new creatures. Actually – they are more creators than creatures. As Steven R. Covey put it: they act instead of being acted upon.
What needed to happen to make similar changes in our production plant? Only two things: The workers needed to be asked to share their ideas for improvements and they had to feel that their ideas were welcomed. The worse thing that we as managers could do would be to say: “If your idea is so simple – why didn’t you share it before? We have wasted so much money for so many years because you didn’t care to share this simple solution?!” Imagine how you would feel if this was the response to your suggestion? I know I would have a hard time sharing any improvement ideas in the future.
Kaizen and the idea of Continuous Improvement do not suggest that everybody should all of a sudden become managers or that anybody can start doing things in his or her way. Order and structure are very important elements of any organization. What my experience with the Toyota System and Kaizen Philosophy taught me is that empowering the workers doesn’t have to lead to chaos but if done properly will lead to greater efficiency. Individual workers know more about their particular parts of the production process than anything else. Each one of them is a creative individual. Ignoring their knowledge and experience and not allowing them to use their natural, creative potential is waste or “big muda” as my boss would say.