Kaizen in production facilities
Lean management is a Japanese-derived management methodology aimed at improving product quality while reducing manufacturing costs. It seeks to do this by eliminating anything that does not enhance the quality of the product. A critical element of this methodology is kaizen.
What is kaizen?
Kaizen is a philosophy of life. Kai – change, Zen – better. Change for the better. What particularly characterises kaizen is that change occurs slowly but systematically. Revolution is being abandoned in favour of several minor improvements that produce visible and lasting results in the long term.
Apart from the risk of failure, significant changes are often met with human reluctance. People do not like radical changes that require the modification of ingrained habits and routines. It is much better to move in small steps but steadily forward.
Kaizen in the production plant
Because of the many successive small changes, Kaizen is better accepted by people, especially when the employee sees its positive effects of it. Moreover, the small-steps method also allows systematic correction of activities – in line with the 5S principle used in lean management.
To be effective, kaizen must be an ongoing process. It is a systematic effort to improve the overall work culture in the company. In doing so, involving employees and the entire management team is crucial. A lack of commitment from the management discourages employees from becoming involved in the process.
A simple example of process improvement in line with kaizen could be the so-called ‘shadow board’. During machine retooling, there was the problem of wasting time looking for the right tools, especially when multiple mechanics were using the same set. Because of this, retooling times were increasing. The staff pointed this out, and a suggestion was made on their part to mark the locations of the various tools on the tool board with corresponding outlines. In this way, the mechanic retooling a machine can see, without looking, where the instrument should be located. The tool is immediately returned to its place, and its possible absence is immediately visible. As a result, a reduction in machine retooling time has been achieved. Moreover, the cost of making such a change is negligible, and the convenience for the employee encourages them to adapt to such a change.
From the point of view of the management of the entire plant, the change appears insignificant. However, the sum of many such improvements results in a gentle and, most importantly, continuous improvement in the quality of people’s work, further reducing costs and increasing the quality of the end product while reducing waste (jap. muda).
Employee suggestion system
A kaizen element that allows employees to make suggestions for changes directly related to their work and which they think should make it easier for them to do their job. This usually works on the principle of a box into which a card can be dropped with a suggestion to improve a process. Prepared forms can be used for this. Importantly, this must be done in a way that encourages use. The form needs to be simple and clear so that filling it in does not pose a problem for the employee and is not time-consuming.
A fundamental condition must be met for an employee suggestion system to be effective. Ideas raised by employees should be implemented where possible. Only then will they see the point of engaging in such activities. Otherwise, they will quickly abandon the opportunity. The power of this tool is to show employees that they have a tangible impact on the operation of the plant and changes in its functioning, as well as on the quality of their work.
Why are employees’ observations so important? Because no manager can theoretically come up with what the employee directly sees performing their tasks in practice. The employee knows best what is hindering their work and is in the best position to propose the best solutions. Solutions that are simple and yet – effective. The manager’s job is merely to enable such elementary plant-wide improvements to be implemented.
CMMS versus kaizen
CMMS systems are a great tool to facilitate the practical application of kaizen. Since, by design, they improve communication between the production nest, foreman and management and allow data to be collected on the equipment condition and its inspection, they can also be a source of information on recurring problems. Thus, they influence modifying procedures in such a way as to improve the quality of individual processes without great expense systematically. Furthermore, appropriate use of the information from such a tool can be a way to make kaizen-compatible, optimal changes in the plant.
What is worth remembering?
Despite the undoubted advantages of using kaizen, one should be wary of looking at kaizen from just tables of numbers. In many establishments, it is possible to encounter an unreflective method of cost optimisation through a top-down definition of how much by which percentage certain costs are to be reduced each year. This unnaturally forces employees to reduce their activities’ time, limiting their investment in tools and materials and artificially simplifying processes without considering their effects. This, in turn, actually decreases the quality of the product, not improves it, and – despite some standard features – is not kaizen. Instead of encouraging employees to work together, it causes resistance, and restrictions on materials and tools only increase waste.
Therefore, kaizen should be seen as an organic process, improving the work culture with the equal involvement of all employees and managers rather than unilateral, top-down management decisions.
Every production facility must think about systematic improvement to function well. For process improvement to be effective, all employees must be involved. Only in this way can a company improve its position in the market. Good kaizen implementation is a proven path to success, and as they say at Toyota Motors – ‘a day without kaizen is a day lost’.