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Visibility and Value

Kaizen events for continuous improvement
  • Christopher Jablonski
September/October 2011

Editor’s note: Kaizen, a Japanese term referring to continuous improvement, is a lean principle that centers around the elimination of waste in production. Kaizeman events help users rapidly discover the sources of waste and eliminate non-value added activities in a single function. Carolyn Sly and Mary Ann Mauldwin will explore these events at their session “Kaizen Your Way to Shop Floor Success” at the 2011 International Conference & Expo, October 23–25, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. APICS magazine staff editor Christopher Jablonski spoke with Sly and Mauldwin about kaizen events and how they can create lasting improvements in organizations.

JABLONSKI: How would you describe a kaizen event in the most basic terms?

SLY: Nowadays, kaizen refers to a relatively short-term, focused improvement event. It consists of about two-to-five days of work on whatever process people are trying to improve; then, within a week of that, reporting to management what the findings have been; and within a month of the event, doing the implementation.

JABLONSKI: I take it this wasn’t always the case.

SLY: When the Japanese first started bringing some of these events into the United States, I remember people at local Japanese companies being assigned to kaizen events that lasted six-to-eight weeks. What we’ve done in the United States— and this is just my theory based on my readings—is we have created it to be a very short-term, focused event on process improvement strategy.

MAULDWIN: It’s really a spinoff of Just-in-Time, and it has the same basic goal of eliminating waste. Just-in-Time was a buzzword in the 80s and 90s, and kaizen events became more popular in the late 90s.

JABLONSKI: How might companies differ in their approaches to kaizen events?

SLY: One of the things you’ll find when you talk to different people about kaizen events is that different companies have different methodologies for not only the length of time, but also the order of events for the kaizen. For instance, some companies will perform engineering studies before they kaizen an area and look for potential improvements. Some will do the fact-finding during the event, and some will use a combination of both.

JABLONSKI: Does anything remain the same?

SLY: The common denominator is that kaizen is a focused improvement effort. Many times, it’s only intended to solve 50 percent of a problem. The problem could be a housekeeping issue. It could be resetting a process or any type of improvement effort. And it doesn’t just have to be on the production floor. It could also be in an administrative area.

JABLONSKI: How do these events work at your companies?

MAULDWIN: At Roush Yates, we have implemented a goal to have one kaizen event per month. We started this about three months ago. There’s a team of five-to-eight people for each event, and they’re allowed to identify the resources they need internally and externally to get the data to do the analysis, and then they have three weeks after that first team meeting to complete the analysis and propose it to management.

The event we’re currently working on is streamlining our order entry process. We opened a retail store in the last year, and we’ve grown by leaps and bounds. Our kaizen events have two goals: One is to reduce time, and one is to improve Customer Relations.

SLY: A local company I was consulting with about two or three years ago used to do a tremendous amount of standalone kaizen events. A leader there said, “We have to quit doing all these ‘drive-by kaizens’ and really integrate them into our business strategy.” So now they consider a kaizen just one of the many different tools they use for improvement and to support their business strategy.

JABLONSKI: Can you provide a detailed account of a kaizen event you witnessed firsthand?

SLY: I went through one at a hospital. This is kind of a scary one, actually. Every hospital has what’s called a code cart, or a crash cart, on every single floor. Basically, the code cart is a miniature inventory warehouse. Every drawer represents something that’s needed during a code—when someone’s in respiratory or cardiac distress. It’s extremely important that these

drawers be stocked properly … Typically, there is a tools or utensils drawer, for the intubation blade or needles—anything needed for the code. There’s a drug drawer for epinephrine or different drugs needed to stimulate the heart or open up the lungs. There are different drawers for different uses.

This hospital was having a horrific problem where people were getting to the code—the anesthesiologist, the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapist, anybody who needed to be there—and the drawers of the code cart weren’t stocked. That may sound hard to believe, but it’s not an uncommon problem.

JABLONSKI: What did you wind up doing?

SLY: We put a kaizen event together with all the different functions involved in stocking the cart. We found out that, for instance, the pharmacy people responsible for refilling the oxygen had nothing to do with oxygen; nor did they have any experience with it. So they weren’t filling the tanks properly. We found out that the doctors on the floors had not notified the pharmacy that they’d upgraded the heart drugs, so the doctors were bringing their own drugs to the code. We found out that central supply people, who clean the intubation blades and needles, weren’t getting the cart. So—and this is disgusting— they were never cleaning the blades used in the codes. Doctors were getting to the codes, and they’d open the blade drawer, and there was blood on the tools.

People involved in the process had never communicated to anybody else what their inventory needs were. Through the kaizen, we identified what needed to be in each drawer, who needed to be involved in the cleaning and the restocking, what upgrades needed to be done on the drugs, and the resealing procedure. We brought people in from all over the hospital, including people from the pharmacy, and they got to witness a code, because a lot of people were involved in restocking who had never been there when a patient coded. They actually needed to see the process itself to understand it. We accomplished this in about five working days of examination, flowcharting, and interviewing people involved in the process. It took about a month to implement all the different changes that needed to happen to fix the problem.

The desired outcome was that the doctors and the nurses and those who attended the code would always have what they needed for the patients, and the doctors and nurses no longer had to carry their rework bags to the codes. It also ended up saving the hospital a tremendous amount of money.

JABLONSKI: Mary Ann, do you have an experience you’d like to share?

MAULDWIN: We did a kaizen event at Roush Yates several years ago ... We wanted to reduce finished goods inventory and reduce throughput time.

The way our business works, we build an engine, and then it goes to the race team. They race the engine, it comes back, and we rebuild it. The time the engine arrived from the race until it was available for use again averaged 17 days.

So, the first step in the event was process mapping. The team was made up of six people, and we mapped the as-is process. Of course, we found redundancy, and we found waste in processes. Things were being done that, when questioned why, it was more or less because they had always been done that way. There wasn’t really value added.

We also found there was too much walking between the sequences of events. So we not only made a process map from the standpoint of time, but we also looked at the cost at each step. We worked on optimizing the time between events and eliminated bottlenecks—and, at the end of the event, we reduced the cycle time from 17 to 12 days. We reduced our inventory and finished work in process by one-third. It was a huge savings. That was probably the most successful event that we completed.

JABLONSKI: What risks or pitfalls do you look out for when running a kaizen event?

SLY: If you’re not careful, you can come up with a wonderful improvement and then not put in a methodology to sustain what you’ve gained. That’s where you lose accountability within your facility. You put this amount of effort into doing something, but you don’t put in a way to keep the problem from reoccurring.

MAULDWIN: You need leadership. It’s easy to get off on a tangent and for [the kaizen event] to become a gripe session. You need structure.

JABLONSKI: How can you overcome these challenges?

MAULDWIN: Involve the employees. These are the people who actually do the work. They become champions … Also, you have to be aware of the changing requirements of your customers. The processes you put in place two years ago may have been valid at the time, but—as we see more and more in virtual, business-to-business relationships—we’ve had to rethink some of the processes that we spent a lot of time on years ago.

JABLONSKI: Because you don’t want things to go back to the way they used to be.

MAULDWIN: Key people leave the company, and people revert back to bad, old habits. I’ve certainly seen it happen.

JABLONSKI: What will attendees learn at your session at APICS 2011?

SLY: I’m hoping they walk away with the practical tools to be able to go back into their organizations and try it. We’re going to simulate an actual kaizen event. We want to do something that’s fun and that engages the audience.

JABLONSKI: What final piece of advice do you have for anyone planning on exploring kaizen?

SLY: If you’re going to do it, stand behind it. Make sure that kaizen is part of how you do business, that you don’t just do them occasionally. Make certain that people who work in your businesses understand it’s part of the set of improvement tools that they’re expected to do, that cross-functional training is a big piece of their day-to-day lives, that they no longer “own” jobs. The more and more we emphasize that this is part of what we do, the more that we have to cross-functionally collaborate, the better off we’re going to be.

The staff at APICS magazine would like to thank Justin Meeham, lean leader at GE, and Matt Bossemeyer, materials distribution leader at UTC Fire & Security, for their insights during the interview.

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