Alright, now back to today’s episode. Today I’m I’m going to introduce you to the concept of kaizen and share four things:
- What kaizen means
- The secret to creating a lean life
- Paul Aker’s compelling example of 2 Second Lean
- Why small improvements are strategically more important than big improvements
The Meaning of Kaizen
Kaizen is a Japanese word that has two parts: “kai,” which means “change,” and “zen” which means “good.” Together the word kaizen means a “good change,” or “change for the better.” The concept of kaizen is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, so some of that is lost in translation to English. But it is also a cultural element of lean manufacturing, so I’ll take some time to explain it more fully.
As you know, lean is after continuous improvement for the sake of eliminating waste and improving the flow of value. Kaizen is the engine of continuous improvement. It is a very fundamental lean behavior.
Let me share some statistics with you. Although this figure is a bit dated, in 2003 Toyota received over 580,000 suggestions from employees in Japan alone, as documented in Jeffrey Liker’s book The Toyota Way. What’s even more impressive is that 99% of these ideas were implemented!
Another example is an American company I met in 2017 who is practicing Paul Akers’ 2 Second Lean. They have something like 70 employees and they’ve created over 5,000 improvements in three years. That’s 24 improvements per employee per year, or two per month!
Quite a few CEOs drool at the thought of getting every employee substantially improving their work 24 times a year. What we’re talking about though is a kaizen culture.
The idea of a culture of kaizen is living in a state of continual improvement. And I don’t mean every once in a while; I mean every single day. There’s nothing remarkable about making something better once or twice a year. But when you live in a place of improving even just one thing every single day for the rest of your life, that starts to be remarkable. And if you get everyone to do it, it’s nothing short of extraordinary!
The Secret to Creating a Lean Life and Lean Culture
The secret to creating a lean life and lean culture is simple daily improvements and making those daily improvements a way of life.
If you want to perform at the highest levels, it has to become normal for you to practice kaizen every day. It should be like breathing—automatic and part of life itself.
By the way, kaizen actually has nothing to do with size. It doesn’t assume that a change is big or small. It’s just a good change. But you will be wise to convince yourself that kaizen is about making lots of small improvements. If you train your brain to believe in making simple and small improvements every day, you’ll start living an outrageously lean life.
Teaching Kaizen as 2 Second Lean
Although the idea of kaizen has been around a long time and is nothing new, Paul Akers does a fantastic job of communicating what it’s all about. He calls it 2 Second Lean. What he has done is taught all of his employees to make one small improvement every day that shaves off 2 seconds or more of waste. He sets the bar extremely low so that everyone can participate and everyone can be successful.
The result is a massively engaged workforce that is continuously improving everyday. If you haven’t seen what I’m talking about you need to, because these guys are on fire! I’ll even put a few links in the show notes to a few compilation videos showing off their daily improvements.
I know from personal experience that when I carry a mindset that making improvements is reserved for projects or an all-afternoon event, I never do much. I live most days not continuously improving because in my subconscious I believe I don’t have the time or resources to make a difference. But if instead I carry a mindset of 2 Second Lean and simple small changes, I can get something done everyday. And longterm I get a ton more accomplished than if I only did kaizen by way of an event or project.
This is the key to developing your capabilities as a lean practitioner. Kaizen has to be kept simple and it has to become an everyday reality. Like I’ve already said, it has to become normal, just like breathing.
Big vs. Small Improvements
We’ve already talked about it a little bit, but let’s compare big versus small improvements a little more. Many companies who do lean have large initiatives and big projects. They use heavyweight lean tools like value stream mapping and hoshin kanri (also known as policy deployment). But they fail to fully engage the front line in everyday kaizen. What I’m saying is that it is easy for management to favor and give credit to big efforts, not small improvements.
It’s easy for CEOs to put confidence in big projects. They are measureable and have a well-defined ROI. Small improvements done every day don’t. They are hard to measure and it’s very time-consuming to try to calculate the ROI of each improvement.
But the best lean companies in the world have massive employee engagement and people who are making small improvements for the better every day. These small improvements done by everyone greatly outpace and outperform the results of large improvements. Some research demonstrates that in highly-engaged workforces, 80% of improvement comes from the small contributions of front-line employees. Only 20% comes from top-down initiatives and projects. For more about this lookup Alan Robinson, author of The Idea-Driven Organization.
I’m suggesting in this episode that if you could train yourself to embrace kaizen as a way of life and commit to continuously improving your work and life everyday–no matter how small the improvement is–you’ll become one of the highest performing lean maniacs out there.
A Challenge to You
Before I conclude this episode, I want to challenge you to start practicing daily kaizen. It may start as simple as throwing away five items from your desk drawer, your car, or your computer desktop. I don’t care. You can even embrace Paul Aker’s idea of 2 Second Lean and call it that if you want. But just start training your brain to make one small improvement every day for the rest of your life. Do that, and you’ll become a waste-eliminating machine, have extraordinary results, and have an extraordinary life.