Recently, I was asked to guest post by fellow Lean blogger and Friend of TheKaiZone, Eric Raio, on his Factory Solutions blog. Eric posed the following question to six of the world’s foremost Lean authors and thought leaders . . . and me, too:
What is one low-hanging fruit you can solve with kaizen?
Kaizen: Beware the Low-Hanging Fruit
Almost all new kaizen programs begin with the search for the proverbial low-hanging fruit, and understandably so. It just makes sense that we start by reaping the biggest reward for the least amount of effort, doesn’t it? Perhaps not. While the low-hanging fruit might seem enticing, caution must be exercised not to become dependent on the high-reward, low-effort model of improvement. Allow me to explain.
In the early days of a Lean journey, life is good. The low-hanging fruit has been ripening on the vines for years, if not longer, just waiting to be plucked. To answer the original question of what low-hanging fruit can be solved with kaizen, we often start by 5S-ing a store room so we can get rid of the extra stuff we bought the last six times we couldn’t find what we needed. We “do SMED” to remove a few bothersome activities from a changeover. We “poka-yoke” a machine to reduce defects (and because it’s fun to say that we poke-yoked something). And we see some initial results.
In a short while, we learn to thrive off of the low-hanging fruit, exerting minimal effort for a sizable reward. The low-hanging fruit is seemingly everywhere . . . until one day, it’s not. Slowly yet suddenly, we look around to find that the lower branches have been laid bare. It is at this time that we arrive at a crossroads: learn to pick the produce that hangs out of reach, or continue to depend on the low-hanging fruit only to starve while the produce above rots.
Unfortunately, data on the topic suggests that the vast majority of companies fail to make the transition away from low-hanging fruit to sustainable, long-term improvement. In a 2014 study of 67 factories across 19 countries, the authors concluded:
“There are indeed low-hanging fruits that give a few quick pay-offs, but the real benefits of lean are first realized when the majority of the factory and its supply chain operates according to the principles. Managers . . . erroneously terminate the lean implementation before they reach the harvest periods in later stages.”
So, what are we to do to avoid the trap of the low-hanging fruit? The answer comes from reframing the original question. Not, what low-hanging fruit can you solve with kaizen, but rather what do you need to solve for kaizen to move beyond the low-hanging fruit?
To fully answer this question requires more than just a single blog post, but there is much to be gained from going back to basics. In the seminal text on the topic, Kaizen, Masaaki Imai defines kaizen very simply and very powerfully as:
Kaizen: Continuous improvement involving everyone.
It may be leadership setting a vision to provide direction to our improvement efforts, or management providing the time and resources to make improvement, or front-line staff deepening their understanding of the work they perform and how it connects to their customers. For kaizen to be successful, we must realize that every single person in our organizations has a role to play, and that the true value of kaizen comes from developing our people in these roles.
And so, while you and I alone may be able to pick a few pieces, it’s only by standing upon each other’s shoulders that we have the opportunity to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit and reap the real harvest.
Winner of TheKaiZone Free Book Giveaway
Congratulations to KaiZone reader Jen for winning the Giving Thanks by Giving Back with Lean book giveaway. For her entry, Jen will receive a free copy of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence autographed by co-author Karyn Ross.
Come Meet Me in Philadelphia!
Speaking of Karyn Ross, together we will be co-chairing the 10th Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen Life Science Summit in Philadelphia, PA on April 3rd & 4th, 2017. There is truly no greater joy for me than meeting and interacting with members of TheKaiZone community. I hope to see you there. And as a special gift to my readers, use promo code C867SPK when you register to save 15% off the standard conference cost.
Do you have an example of a low-hanging fruit that you were able to solve using kaizen? Share your story using the comments section below!