Small Steps philosophy as a way of life

The first time I read Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai, I was a junior manager responsible for several production lines.  The concept of improving processes by taking small steps at a time capture my attention.  It was the beginning of a never-ending learning process in continuous improvement.  I believe in this philosophy; it drives the way I work and make decisions.  I don’t remember when I started, but one day I realize that kaizen or the art of improving by taking small steps was my way of life.  I was learning and improving how I do things all the time.

Small steps as way of life 

After that realization, I started to consciously apply the basic concepts of some tools in my house.  For example, I started to use 5S to ensure I kept everything in my kitchen, closets, and garage organized.  My father learned that if he put things in their place, he wasted no time when he needed them again.  I also use kanban for my groceries to ensure that I don’t run out of my favorite items or over-stock the less used items.  Visual management becomes a staple in my calendars, inbox, and agendas.  

Over the years, I roll out my home CI initiatives to improve home tasks, from cooking to gardening.  I used PDCA to cut time, distance, and other types of waste.  The strategy I follow is to change things in small steps.  I create small steps by breaking a task into smaller pieces.  I do a plan for each assignment, test it, learn the result, and adjust.  

When I started gardening, I had no clue what I was doing.  In the beginning, I bought grown plants at local stores.  After work, I used to relax while taking care of them.  That was fun, but I wanted more. Therefore, I start reading and learning what types of vegetables grow in my area. The first year I took note of everything I did.  At the end of the season, I noted what worked and what didn’t.  I kept doing that every year, learning more and taking small risks at a time.  My gardening skills are much better now, and the number of vegetables harvested each season is growing.

Small steps to create or break a habit, or develop a skill

CI is useful for creating a habit, break a habit, or develop new skills.  The formation of a new habit has three steps, a trigger, the routine, and the reward.  Make sure that the new routine is a small step.  I know it works but, I could not explain why until I read the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life:  The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.

In his book, he explains how to overcome fear and procrastination with seven small steps.  He also talks about how the reptilian brain governs the fight-or-flight response that keeps us alive in the face of danger.  When something triggers fear, this response kicks in to sabotage your intentions.  The trick to achieving change is to think of small steps.  Maurer recommends asking your brain what one small step you could take toward reaching your goal.  Small questions or small steps keep the fight-or-flight response in off position.

Fear paralyze us, use small steps to keep going

Fear or uncomfortable feelings keep us from doing things that we don’t like.  When you faced a situation you don’t like, the flight mode kicks in.  As a result, you ignore the event until you can’t anymore.  By then, it is a hot mess, only because you did not deal with it before.  It is better to listen to the warning signs and gut feelings that tell you that something is wrong. Once you recognized the warning, deal with a small problem and not a big one.    

A different way to see and do things

The secret to your success is to take small steps.  Sounds funny, even silly, but it works.  Before we learn to run, we learn to crawl, take one step while holding onto something, and then walk without help.  Breaking a task into smaller pieces makes sense.  It allows you to grasp the situation and deal with it with greater chances of success.  Many small wins add up to a big win.  Do not let fear paralyze you.  Keep going, one small step at a time.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Mark Twain

Continuous improvement books for beginners

continuous improvement books

I learned that February is the library lovers’ month.  Many of us don’t visit libraries anymore, but still, keep our love for books.  In my case, I have a weak spot for continuous improvement books.  Books are an excellent way to learn, find inspiration, or have a good time.  My CI learning experience includes traditional classroom training, webinars, hands-on workshops, and others.  But my favorite way to learn more about CI is by reading books.  Perhaps, it is because I can go at my pace, reading, learning, and practicing.

Continuous improvement books

There are thousands of books about CI out there.  Although there are real gems, there are also some that are not very good.  As a result, finding the right one can be difficult.  Some publications are best suited for beginners, while others are for people with some experience.  

Here is a list of my favorite CI titles

  1. Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai – This book is an introduction to kaizen and gemba.  Although the book contains all the traditional lean jargon, it is easy to read. In addition, includes various case studies including hospitals, product development, ground transportation, and logistics.  
  2. Lean Production Simplified by Pascal Dennis – The title says it all, it contains a simplified explanation of the lean system.  The book includes a description of various concepts like five S, visual management, standardize work, and others.
  3. The lean turnaround by Art Byrne – If you are an executive looking to start a culture transformation, this is the one for you.  It focuses on lean as a strategy to create value and transform the company.
  4. Lean Office and Service Simplified by Drew Locher – If you work in an office or service environment, look no further.  The author presents all lean principles and concepts from a non-manufacturing perspective.  He describes how to use tools like value-stream, standard work, flow, visual management, and others.  In addition, it provides several examples and implementation strategies.
  5. The Toyota Way to Service Excellence by Jeffrey K. Liker and Karyn Ross –   The authors explain how to use the lean principles, practices, and tools to provide better services.  Moreover, it contains case studies in various service industries.  The examples include financial services, telecommunications, health care, and insurance.
  6. People: A leader’s day-to-day guide to building, managing, and sustaining lean organizations by Robert Martichenko, Steve Gran, Roger Pearce, & 4 more – This book is a leaders’ guide to build and sustain a lean organization.  It provides guidance for all the tasks, activities, and behaviors a leader needs to transform the organization and get long-term success.  
  7. Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones – This publication is a best seller classic.   It goes from the principles to lean thinking to action, presenting how to close the gap between customers and providers.  It also has case studies to explain those concepts.  One of them is Wiremold Company with Art Byrne as its president and CEO.  Yes, you are right, he is the author of the #3 on my list.

You read continuous improvement books, and then what?

The short answer to that question is that you learn, explore, and practice lean.  Learn new ways to do things.  Second, you explore how to apply those ways within your business.  Third, you keep learning by teaching others how to do it.  And third, you keep learning and practicing.  

The secret to a continuous improvement culture transformation is that lean, or CI, is a system, not a group of tools.  The focus should be on the people and the learning process.  One common mistake is to spend too much time learning and using tools.  Instead, focus on working with the people.  The real success is, being able to engage your team in CI.  That is to say, do not waste your time reading books unless you are committed to learn and teach.  

What else you can do?

To increase your learning opportunities, combine reading books with hands-on workshops and training.  For even better results, get a serious professional to help you along the journey.  We all need a coach or mentor to guide us through the challenging steps of transforming a culture.  Here in Better Process Solutions, we are ready to help.  Get in touch!

Lean thinking, what is it?

Lean thinking

I mentioned the phrase, lean thinking pretty often.  As I indicated before, the term was coined by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones.  It is used to describe the process of making business decisions based on Lean Principles.  

What are the principles of lean?

  1. Customer Value 
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream and eliminate waste.
  3. Make the value-add steps flow.
  4. Let customers pull value from the next upstream activity.
  5. Continuous Improvement 

The foundation of lean thinking

This list of principles is the foundation of the Lean system.  It is a collection of thoughts, behaviors, or propositions that guide what we had known as Lean Thinking.  

All effort directed to improve a process starts with identifying value from the customer lenses.  The continuous improvement goal is to deliver the Customer the highest product or service quality, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest lead time.  Consequently, the focus of all our decisions is quality, cost, delivery, and people.  In other words, the focus is on those things that the customer value.

Process Improvement and the customer

If the focus is on customer value, then it is logical that the next step is to identify the value stream. That is to say, to identify all the steps from request to delivery and eliminate waste.  Waste is defined as those steps that do not add value.

The third principle is to make the value-add steps flow.  Eliminating delays, waiting time, and other sources of waste, the flow improves.  Therefore, the total process time would be shorter. Once this happens, let them pull value from the next upstream step.  That is to say, that your clients will indicate when they need more inventory.  Continuous improvement is the repetition of the first four principles.  Once you improve one process, standardize, train, and start improving again.

Lean thinking vs. traditional thinking

It is necessary to put aside old behaviors and ways to change the culture by embracing continuous improvement thinking.  To make decisions based on customer value and flow is not what you learned in business school.  Give your team the power to change things is not common either.

The table below presents various examples of each thinking type, side by side.  You will recognize some principles and behaviors that I mentioned in previous posts.  For example, to empower the team to improve their workplace versus bringing external resources.

Lean thinking vs traditional thinking

It takes time to get used to this type of thinking.  However, practice lean thinking every day, everywhere, by everybody is worth it.  Above all, your customers will notice the difference, and your business bottom-line will be better.

Would you like instant results in your improvement efforts?

Instant results for your continuous improvement efforts

These days people look for instant results. They want something, and they want it now! Some people have the same expectation for continuous improvement (CI).  Although they never say it out loud, they believe that CI will get them instant results.

Continuous improvement is a way of life.  It is a different way to think and do things.  Therefore, it comprises challenging prevailing ideas and learning new ones.  Reshaping your entire belief system for process improvement and problem-solving is not an easy task.  As a result, it cannot be quick or instant.

Instant Results and Continuous Improvement

I visualize continuous improvement as a marathon.  Through the CI system, you are looking to change people’s minds and hearts.  Lean or CI cannot be considered a tool or a short-term strategy to accomplish some goals.  It is a long-term commitment to which leadership focuses on developing people and create a team of problem-solvers.

Two heads are better than one

Two heads are better than one.  That is to say that it is easier for two people who help each other to solve a problem than it is for one person.  In a traditional setting, the manager and supervisors are fire-fighting all the time.  They take care of putting off a fire and run to the next one without learning about why it happened or how to fix it for good.  

Learning proper problem-solving and root cause analysis techniques is the best way to get out of that vicious cycle.  Better yet, grasp the new methods and teach your team how to do it.  Create a team of problem-solvers by empowering your people. Allow them to solve their daily problems while you coach and guide them. Let them be the source for most ideas and take ownership of the improvement process.

Permanent results, not instant ones, is what changes the culture

Continuous improvement is not a sprint race but a never-ending race. Change the mindset and culture takes time. Learning how to test new ideas and reflect on the results takes time as well.  Continuous improvement or kaizen is the daily practice of creating small changes.  It is possible to get big results with small changes. The time invested in using the scientific method to learn and reflect on the results guarantees a thoughtful process.  This thought process makes those results likely to be permanent, but it takes time and patience. 

In the time and age of clicking a button for instant purchases, a culture change is perceived as a big undertaking.  Well, it is a big undertaking.  There is no way to make this instant or fast while keeping the permanent aspect.  Create new habits and change our thinking process is slow rather than fast.  However, the practice of CI, everywhere, by everybody, every day will keep the momentum going and the changes sustainable.

Innovation and continuous improvement

Some people think that continuous improvement or lean conflicts with innovation.  In other words, that lean kills innovation.  However, that is not true both go hand in hand.  Let’s see how.

The power of innovation within continuous improvement

One critic about continuous improvement that I heard often is that the structure does not allow creativity.  CI indeed organizes the thinking process and has some core elements that are not negotiable.  On the other hand, it promotes skills development as a way to show respect.  And it is there where the innovation power of lean or continuous improvement resides.

How it works

To be able to empower your team, you need to develop the skills they need.  Hand-on training to learn the tools is not enough to succeed.  Self-discipline to behave and think the continuous improvement way is critical.  The structure provided by tools like PDCA and 5S helps to build that discipline.   

For example, the traditional way to solve problems is by using past experiences to guess the best solution.  But with PDCA, you have to define the problem by going where the problem happens to see for yourself, ask questions, and gather data.  It also uses promotes a team approach.  Various minds working together enriches both the problem definition and countermeasures identification.  

The most important lesson of PDCA occurs at the end of the process.  During the last step, act or adapt, you verify if the actions taken solved the problem.  It also encourages you to reflect upon the results, what work, and what didn’t.  The discussion of the lessons learned opens the gates of innovation by opening minds to endless opportunities.

Reflection

Reflection generates learning by making us look at our actions and their consequences.  Doing this requires looking at assumptions and reactions while examining the lessons learned.   The act of reflecting upon our actions also help to develop creative thinking skills.  

Once your mind starts to question how things work or how you can do it better, you will keep looking for answers.  Curiosity is the source of invention.  Being curious about things keeps your mind sharp on what happens or not.  Being curious opens your eyes to new ideas.

Engagement and innovation 

Boredom is a leading indicator of engagement.  Doing the same thing every day is boring.  And boredom kills engagement and consequently innovation.  They have time to think about how much they don’t like their work and start looking for a new one.  On the other hand, if they feel that their skills are valued and can visualize themselves growing with the company, their engagement increases.

One tenet of continuous improvement is to respect the people.  One way to show respect is to provide the environment and opportunities to learn new skills.  Being able to contribute to the company’s future in a meaningful way is a great motivator.  It will not only improve their work performance but also their attitude towards life.  A team member that finishes the workday feeling good about it will arrive home with much better humor.  Therefore, family time will be as rewarding and positive as it should be.

A mind free of work concerns and frustration is a mind ready to create and innovate!

Conclusion

CI does not restrict thinking.  On the contrary, it provides a way to standardize routine tasks, allowing time and energy to use their talents and creativity.  When they have the power to change and improve their workplace, they will engage in finding ways to improve.  With self-discipline, they will pursue daily small improvement steps.  With each step, their curiosity will grow.  And with it, the appetite for asking why and getting answers with data will grow as well.  As a result, they will have breakthrough ideas, new concepts, and ways to do things.  Curiosity is the source of invention. It is not a matter of whether innovation will happen, but when.

Self-Reflection and continuous improvement

One of the biggest differences between continuous improvement or lean and other business models or systems is that it recognizes the need for reflection.  Toyota recognizes that even if a task is completed successfully, there is a need to reflect on the results.  It is a structured way to look at the results with the purpose of learning from the experience.

Daily Self-reflection

It takes time to get used to the idea of reflecting on our actions as part of our daily work.  That is why reflection is part of the leaders’ standard work.  It is challenging to do it because nobody wants to think about what went wrong or failures.  The objective of this exercise is not to criticize the person or team, is to learn from mistakes to avoid future repetition.  Through reflection, you can create better plans for the future. 

Continuous improvement is about learning, experimenting, and using the lessons learned to change and adapt.  We will find a million reasons not to take the time to reflect, but self-reflection or team reflection is the vehicle that will drive us full circle in our learning journey.  It is not until we take the time to ask what went well and what didn’t that we learn through our honest answers.  While learning from what we did well is good, learning from our mistakes is better.  The answer to what you would do differently next time is where you will learn the most.  

Continuous Improvement through Reflection

Reflection is one of the elements of the Kaizen spirit.  The act or adapt step of the PDCA cycle is a reflection of what we intended to do.  Did we accomplish the goal?  Why not?  How can we fix the problem?  By getting into the habit of answering these questions, you keep yourself grounded to lean thinking.

Reflection is an important part of a learning organization.  Learning from mistakes is what helps us to prevent repeating them, and the process of recognizing that even if something is good, can be better is what keeps the continuous improvement process alive and kicking!

10 Rules to practicing continuous improvement

While doing kaizen, obviously you are seeking to improve a process, but if you are focusing on the results, your heart is in the wrong place.  Continuous Improvement heart is the people; therefore, you should focus on their learning experience rather than the savings or productivity gain.  What are the ground rules for practicing continuous improvement?

Ground rules for practicing continuous improvement

When I facilitate kaizen events, I like to be clear about the expectations.  A number of those expectations are directed to leadership because, as stated before, they need to learn and model the new behaviors.  Kaizen is a learning activity, where curiosity, creativity, and the desire to learn and do new things are the main ingredients for success.  The following are ten ground rules for practicing continuous improvement.

  1. Practice Respect at all times, respect the people and their ideas, one person speaking at a time, listen to what others have to say, be on time, no finger-pointing, there are no bad ideas.
  2. Tune your mind to a new channel:  Lean Thinking.
  3. Keep an open mind, be curious, ask Why, What if, How could we?
  4. Challenge the status quo, ask Why five times, and find the root cause.
  5. No excuses!  Think Yes, we can do it if _____.
  6. Look for low-cost, rapid, and simple solutions. 
  7. It is ok (and encouraged) to disagree, but it is not ok to be disrespectful.
  8. The meeting room is a safe zone where there are no titles, all ideas and opinions have the same value, and it is ok, to be honest.  
  9. Correct what you see wrong, but there is no need to be perfect!
  10. Win or learn, here you do not lose!

Additional key notes

These rules exist to ensure the right environment to encourage participation exists.  Kaizen is not classroom training; it is learning by doing.  Create the environment to drive fear out of the door and let in creativity and curiosity.  Every team member deserves to have the opportunity to learn and be part of the activities that will change their work environment and processes. 

What is your guide through your continuous improvement journey? Five basic rules to stay true to the Kaizen spirit.

Guiding Principles for Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement (CI) or Kaizen is the daily practice of creating small changes using low-cost common-sense solutions.  To stay true to the CI spirit and be able to accomplish the goal of delivering customers high-quality value, on-time, and at the lowest possible cost, it is necessary to follow these basic rules.

  1. Create improvements with small daily changes.
  2. The team is the source for most of the improvement ideas.
  3. Incremental improvements are typically cost-effective.
  4. Employees take ownership of the daily improvement process.
  5. Constant feedback and reflection.

By definition, if you are following a continuous improvement program, everybody is pursuing perfection through small changes daily. Every day, everybody should be looking for at least one thing to improve or a problem to solve.  CI is part of everybody’s job, and every day people should be finding a way to correct what is wrong, or make a job easier, or eliminate some waste. These tasks require walking the place where value is created or gemba looking for whatever does not add value to the customer. Your objective is to make the process flow, and for that, you need to know your customer needs.

In a continuous improvement environment, management no longer practices command and control. Leadership does not generate all the ideas anymore. Now they empower their team by involving employees to share their concerns and suggestions and become part of the problem-solving process. Employees work daily with the company processes and know them better than anybody. For that reason, their feedback is valuable, should be seen as gold.

Because they know the processes so well, employees’ ideas are simple and effective solutions.  They are looking to simplify a process, eliminate or combine steps, or change the order, not in terms of adding things.  Leadership and engineers many times complicate things, thinking in high-cost technology solutions that require capital expense.

One of the biggest challenges for a supervisor is to make people change the way they do things.  Breaking with “that is the way we always have done it” is easier when the idea is coming from them.  As a result of involving the team in the daily problem-solving process, they will trust their skills and knowledge more and more.  Soon the team will take ownership of the daily improving process.  

Continuous improvement needs a strong, transparent, and effective communication system.  Communication needs to be clear, honest, consistent, and collaborative.  Open communication that flows both ways, providing constant feedback and reflection.  CI happens within a learning environment where feedback on how things are going and reflecting on the results are as important as clear instructions and expectations.

Follow the continuous improvement basic rules every day, and never stop improving!

What is a gemba walk? What are the benefits of doing a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is defined as the act of going to see gemba, the place where the process happens, and value is created.   During the walk, you will do the following.

Go See

The purpose of the walk is to understand the work and grasp the entire situation.  The associates must know the goal of your visit.  Let them know that you are there to improve a process or understand a problem, not to evaluate the people’s performance.  Go to the area and observe what is going on, observe to understand, not to judge.

Ask What

The second piece to gain understanding is to talk with the people who do the work.  Understand the situation better by asking open-ended questions.  Always ask what first, then why.

Show Respect

You are visiting the workplace of your team, their home for eight or more hours, respect them, and their second home.  Sometimes the following ways to show respect are ignored.  Do not judge, or make questions that can lead to blaming a person or department.  Listen more than you talk and do not give up the answer, let the associates learn and shine while explaining concepts and ideas that they master, not you.  Helping people to develop their skills and raise their self-esteem is a great way to show respect.

Benefits of the Gemba Walks

  • Learn about the process and the challenges associated to it, see what is really happening
  • Get facts to find the answer to a problem, or potential ideas to improve the process.
  • Develop the skills or your team, and other associates by coaching them on how to get facts using direct observation and the scientific or critical thinking (PDCA) to solve problems
  • Drive alignment inside the organization by modeling behaviors and communicating expectations.

Gemba or observation walks are a great tool to develop your team skills.  Do not waste the chance to show how much you appreciate and care about your team by not acting with respect.  Leaders must show respect at all times.  These walks are a great tool to complement the continuous improvement journey by supporting the culture change and providing focus and follow-up to what is important.

What activities are critical to achieving the Kaizen goals?

the foundation for achieving kaizen goals

The focus of kaizen is quality, cost, and delivery.  A few activities should take place daily to achieving the kaizen goals. Some of those activities are quality and safety management, cost and logistics management, and processes, products, and materials follow-up.  Other daily activities are the major Kaizen activities or pillars which are standardization, 5S, and waste elimination.

Achieving kaizen goals with people’s participation

Kaizen or continuous improvement is a people-based based system.  It only works when there is active participation from the employees.  If you forget that the people are the heart of the lean-continuous improvement system, all efforts to implement kaizen as part of the culture will be in vain.

The activities mentioned in the first paragraph will be successful only if the company has a solid foundation of employee involvement elements or systems.  Those are teamwork, self-discipline, improvement suggestions, morale enhancement, and quality circles.

The foundation

Respect is one of the most important principles of lean.  One way to show respect is by taking the time to develop the team’s skills.  They deserve to have learning opportunities to learn and practice. Kaizen focuses on hands-on activities rather than classroom instruction. In other words, it is an exercise of learning by doing. Continuous improvement uses a team approach, with people from different departments and organizational levels working together towards a common goal.  While working together, they learn new skills and acquire self-discipline together.  They also get to know each other as people, gaining an understanding of their differences, and building upon them.

These type of activities increases collaboration, engagement, and morale.  When learning and coaching are based on respect and genuine desire to develop the team skills to increase their knowledge and empower them with some decisions, the base or foundation for continuous improvement is solid.  Employee involvement activities are critical to achieving improvement goals in the areas of quality, cost, and delivery.