In the business realm, there’s a lot of talk around productivity. Things like the Pomodoro Technique and The Eisenhower Matrix promise to help us get more done. But what if how we’re approaching the process is all wrong?
Leadership and business focus a lot on productivity. But it’s the quality of the work being done that matters, not the quantity. If we sacrifice quality for the sake of getting things done, the same old problems emerge.
American auto executives had one big problem.
Their manufacturing plants were keeping up on production numbers, but the vehicles were being assembled wrong. Parts were misaligned or secured incorrectly, bolts ended up in the wrong place or alignment was off, causing a bottleneck at the end of the production line.
The Toyota manufacturing plants based in Japan were churning out vehicles at an incredible rate with near-perfect accuracy. But how? The idea first caught wind as something called the “Toyota Production System.” This set of values included a central tenet and guiding philosophy at Toyota. It is the Japanese word“Kaizen.”
The word means “good change” or “continuous improvement” and represents a commitment to driving toward incremental efficiency and improvement.
Here’s how it worked in the manufacturing plant. More philosophy than system, Kaizen meant that any Toyota assembly worker, at any time, could halt the production line to correct an error or make a suggestion to upper management. In manufacturing, stopping the production line for any reason was not standard operating procedure. But introducing this level of empowerment to assembly line workers gave Toyota the results it wanted: guaranteed quality.
Sometimes it’s the small changes that can make a world of difference for our lives.
It is easy to go along with the status quo and think that we’re doing the best we can. But stepping back from the process helps us clarify where we’re stuck. Toyota needed well-built vehicles to remain the market leader. So instead of following industry norms i.e. (only letting management stop the production line) they made drastic changes. Management left quality control up to the production line and rewarded those who took a vested effort in their work. It made a world of difference and American manufacturing plants adopted the process with significant success.
Kaizen isn’t just something applied to manufacturing processes either. It’s an idea you can take in your own life and business. Here are three simple tips to applying Kaizen to any workflow or process you’re wanting to improve.
- Observe your process.Take a step back. Block out a whole day on your calendar if you need. Get away somewhere quiet where work demands
can’t reach you. (I like to go somewhere out of cell phone service which keeps distractions to a minimum). Ask yourself this question: “If there
is one goal I want my team to accomplish, what would it be?” Once you’ve got that down, work backwards from the question and ask “If there is one
key obstacle holding us back from reaching it (aside from practicals like more money or more staff) what would it be? This process can also apply
to your personal life by replacing team goals with your own.
- Start small. The whole idea of kaizen is centered around incremental, tiny improvements that equate to big milestones. This makes
change manageable instead of that New Year’s Resolution style of change of expecting a light to switch on instantaneously. Patience with the process
is an absolute requirement. One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders making is drafting big, intimidating goals for themselves that cannot be
broken down into practical components. Don’t make it so hard on yourself or your team! See what small changes have the most impact and champion
those. No need to add stress to the process by making the goal feel out of reach from the start.
- Open the feedback loop. When communication lines between employee and upper management are dropped, so does productivity and quality. Whatever you do, ensure this pipeline of communication is open and flowing. It will determine the future success of your business, regardless of industry. If changes cannot be made from the bottom up, team dynamic will sour and create a culture problem in your organization. Give weight to employee suggestions! Those who feel they have agency over their future at a company will stick with that company.
Sometimes it’s hard to see what kind of change will get us from A to B. It takes a lot of energy to introduce new processes to your workplace. Kaizen plays the long game, relying on small consistent shifts that eventually move mountains. Expect resistance at first and continually take recommendations on what could be better in your workplace. Remember, kaizen is a learning process and not a report card on how good a leader you are!
To your excellence in achieving continuous improvement,