Kaizen Events: Are They Any Good for the Non-manufacturing Sector?

Kaizen is a Japanese management tradition that roughly translates to ‘becoming better through change’. It’s a management philosophy that believes in continuous vigilance regarding all the aspects of a production system, and making changes based on this observation so that the system always remains at the peak of its productive efficiency. And one most effective way of achieving this kind of lean management nirvana is to organize kaizen events in your company.

Along with related concepts like 5S and Six Sigma, Kaizen has in recent years become a very popular mantra in American management practice. This is especially true of companies that are interested in implementing lean production and lean office concepts.

Kaizen is as much a bottom-up as a top-down process. For a beneficial synergy to develop, all levels of managerial staff and some of the workers will need to be involved. There is no rule-of-thumb kaizen formula; every setup must find out its optimal shape and flow through painstaking observation and documentation. Data is important, and this data must be gleaned at all significant levels.

Successful implementations of kaizen techniques are often the outgrowth of regular brainstorming workshop sessions among managerial staff and frontline workers armed with all relevant data and information. These workshops typically last between three and five days, and are called ‘kaizen events’.

Surprising insights into production methods often emerge from kaizen events, and these can lead to shedding the excess flab from the production process. The result is lean production and leaner managerial practices.

Toyota was one of the first companies to organize kaizen events almost fifty years ago. As a result of the idea that emerged, they were able to produce cars with half the effort, half the man-power, and, most importantly, almost half the cost in comparison with other contemporary car makers.

All kinds of organizations can benefit from kaizen-style lean management practices. The non-manufacturing industries often feel at sea when confronted with kaizen concepts, because these concepts typically depend on careful process observation, precise measurements and meticulous record-keeping. Non-manufacturing units have no natural measurements, and their processes are difficult to identify and observe.

However, kaizen events in non-manufacturing can be beneficial even in the identification of processes and finding out methods of measuring them. For example, the SIPOC (abbreviation for Supplier, Input, Process, Output andCustomer) formula can help to distinguish the other elements of production, thereby isolating the remaining factor, which must be the process.

One great example of the effect that kaizen events can have in non-manufacturing comes from Swedish Medical Center Hospital in Seattle.

One major problem that the hospital management felt they had to solve was the tracking of costly diagnostic and surgical instruments. These pieces of equipment had a tendency to get scattered all over the premises, and enormous amounts of man-power, time, and consequently money was being employed to bring these back on track.
With the headquarters of Microsoft Inc. nearby, the management was seriously thinking of implementing a high-tech software surveillance system that involved the installation of tracking sensors all over the buildings, and the purchase of millions of dollars worth of hardware and software.

Luckily for the hospital, certain people at the helm were willing to actually put in some hard work before opting for the high-tech solution. The ‘lean thinking’ associated with kaizen is mostly a low-tech, ‘brains before dollars’ approach. You need to understand the exact dynamics of a problem before you throw money at it.

So they organized kaizen events after a careful and meticulous collection of data regarding the movement of the errant instruments across the wards and buildings. They prepared visual charts, also known as ‘spaghetti charts’, mapping out their usual motions, and also of the people who handled them. These careful observations and managements paid off when certain startling facts emerged from the kaizen events.

The kaizen approach recommends ways of reducing waste and simplifying processes. The debating group at Swedish Medical Center found out that certain instruments, called intravenous pumps, which were conventionally removed from the patient’s room to be cleaned, didn’t need to be removed at all. They could be cleaned on-site by certain environmental service workers who visited the rooms every day. Of course, those workers needed to be specially trained for this, but the cost of that was nominal compared to what they had been doing.

The idea was experimentally accepted, and the results were startling. The cleaning costs for the pumps fell from more than $12 per pump to an astonishing 65 cents. Also, the turnaround time for each pump went down from 21 hours to 34 minutes! The cost savings were absolutely huge. The process became more efficient. And needless to say that they achieved their initial target of not losing the instruments, because the instruments now stopped going anywhere in the first place!

Peter Peterka is President of Lean Six Sigma US. For additional information on Six Sigma Green Belt or other Six Sigma Black Beltprograms contact Peter Peterka.

Author: Peter Peterka Google

Published 09/3/2008

SixSigma.us offers both Live Virtual classes as well as Online Self-Paced training. Most option includes access to the same great Master Black Belt instructors that teach our World Class in-person sessions. Sign-up today!

Virtual Classroom Training Programs Self-Paced Online Training Programs