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Understanding Kaizen principles through 7 customer case studies

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the concept of Kaizen. You may have used its principles in your business, or you may be looking for ways to incorporate it into the management of your team. While practices have evolved over the last nearly 100 years since its inception, the core of Kaizen remains the same. We can make dramatic improvements to our businesses by focusing on small, incremental changes that come from employees who are engaged and invested in our processes.

 

A brief history of Kaizen1

What began as the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle at Bell Labs in the 1930s traveled to Japan as part of a plan to aid the country’s economic recovery after WWII. Japanese managers embraced the concept and made it their own, transforming PDCA into Kaizen (Kai = Change; Zen = Better) or Improvement.

By the 1980s, the Japanese economy had become the second largest in the world, in no small part from the adoption of Kaizen principles. This massive success story had many in the West looking to Japan to improve their business practices in order to compete. In the late 80s and early 90s, Japanese management consultant Masaaki Imai brought PDCA back to the U.S. in the form of Kaizen.

Through Imai’s books and Kaizen Institute and through Toyota’s willingness to share the inner workings of its Toyota Production System (TPS), Kaizen began to take hold in America. More commonly referred to today as Continuous Improvement, many different variations of Kaizen have emerged in the last 30 years, but the central tenets remain the same.

 

7 Case Studies

We believe in the value continuous improvement principles bring to all businesses. We built Acadia to help teams follow these basic tenets.

  • Focus on the customer
  • Rely on employees for their ideas and insights
  • Leadership support is critical
  • Focus on small, low-risk, low-effort changes that can be made rapidly
  • Set a goal for the changes you want to make
  • Measure your changes against progress toward your goal
  • Make adjustments based on what the results tell you

Each of the stories below come from our experience working with customers to solve real-world business problems. Most of these examples share several, if not all, of the continuous improvement principles, but we’re choosing stories that highlight each individually.

 

Focus on the Customer

Without exception, every one of our customers has a strong focus on their own customers problems. So, it was challenging to choose which of our customer stories would be best for this section. The most obvious is probably a customer service story.

A client operates customer service operations across brick and mortar locations and a call center that handles inbound calls and website inquiries. Due to the nature of their business, customer questions can be complex. In some instances, the way they answer may even be bound by federal regulation.

The most important aspect of customer service is to ensure every customer receives the same, correct information regardless of how the customer chose to reach out – in person, over the phone, or online.

Previously, the company used a traditional document management system. Unfortunately, that system was difficult to search, and document version control was virtually non-existent. That meant that employees weren’t always sure if they were answering customer questions with the most current, accurate information.

After putting Acadia in place, employees had a single source of truth. They can now find the right document instantly and answer customer questions with confidence. The company also doesn’t need to worry that a customer might get a different answer simply based on who they spoke with and where.

In less than a year, the company showed a significant baseline improvement on customer service error rates.

 

Rely on employees for their ideas and insights

One of the most powerful tools in Acadia is the ability for employees to provide feedback on work processes while they’re actually doing the work.

A manufacturing customer had a packaging machine with a worn part that was creating frequent jams. The problem was, nobody really knew about it, except for the line employees working at the machine. Each jam meant the machine had to be shut down, cleared and restarted, wasting both material and human hours. The employees didn’t want to have to deal with the jams, but there wasn’t a clear method to escalate the issue. So, they just cleared the jams and went on with their work.

The same day the employees gained access to Acadia, they shared photos of the jammed machine back to the plant manager. He quickly worked out a solution and fixed the problem permanently.

It’s unclear when or if the manager would have learned about the issue without this feedback, but the amount of waste saved by the fix is adding up quickly.

We have dozens of similar stories of process improvements, waste reductions and new efficiencies that have come from our customers’ employees.

 

Leadership support is critical

It goes without saying that if leadership isn’t bought in, changes like these will never happen. But powerful and sustained changes can be made when a strong leader gets behind a change.

One of our first manufacturing customers was facing a major problem. A large portion of their workforce was on the verge of retiring. Unfortunately, many of the company’s best practices were trapped in the minds of these exiting employees.

Acting quickly, the company began video recording employees performing their daily tasks. They also captured procedures to share with new employees. They stored the videos in their LMS and printed out SOPs to share with employees. While they had captured the critical information they needed, the videos couldn’t be accessed when they would be most helpful – in the course of performing tasks. The SOPs weren’t as helpful as they were intended either. Because they were paper, managers couldn’t confirm if employees were actually following them or not.

A persistent manager on the learning and development team pursued an Acadia implementation, eventually convincing her manager to try it out on a small team in one factory.

Today, Acadia is the workforce enablement tool helping the company close performance gaps in each of their global factories.

Acadia SOPs are digital and convert to task lists that can be assigned to individuals. Each task is clear and concise and contains job aids like the videos mentioned above. The digital task lists are auditable by managers and hold employees accountable to doing their work the right way. But perhaps most powerful is that employees are able to suggest improvements as they work, fostering the continuous improvement culture growing at the company.

 

Focus on small, low-risk, low-effort changes that can be made rapidly

This is one of the most important aspects of any CI project, but something that can be tough to do when you don’t have a system to capture, organize and report on information.

One of our government customers is responsible for managing, processing and regulating the operating licenses for healthcare provider facilities statewide. For each of the 33 types of facilities the office oversees, there is a different set of standards and requirements that need to be met. This means that each of the office’s staff members needs to be trained on the requirements for the facilities they will regulate, as well as the back-office procedures they need to follow when filing reports.

Initially, our customer’s team was working from a series of hundreds of PowerPoint documents that were managed on a local server. It was difficult to control versioning, editing and updating. It was also challenging to find the right document when needed.

The office’s executive director chose Acadia to manage documents and create check lists to track the progress for new employee onboarding. A substantial amount of information had to be captured and entered into the system; attacking it all at once would have been a monumental task. But the director thought of an ingenious way to get the project going.

She asked everyone on her team to identify the processes they felt were most important to their daily work and enter those into Acadia. This accomplished several things at once:

  • She learned what was most important to each of her team members.
  • Critical information was now captured and available for others.
  • The team became familiar with the platform and began to think of better ways to enter information.
  • Everyone was engaged in the process and could provide feedback, making buy-in a non-issue.

With this simple approach, the office was able to fast-track a process that otherwise may have taken months or not even happened at all.

 

Set a goal for the changes you want to make

KPIs are one of the very first things we talk about with our customers. It’s critical for us to understand how the problem we’re working on is tracked, so we know when Acadia is being effective in helping to solve it.

As an example, one of our logistics customers had a process for distributing SOPs to its workforce that took an average of 600 hours. A major obstacle in their process efficiency was the use of paper-based SOPs and paper-based compliance. SOPs were produced and distributed to staff on paper. Managers recorded, also on paper, which employees received the SOPs. Then the results of those reports were entered into an electronic system to ensure all employees received the correct documents.

After converting all paper procedures to digital documents in Acadia, any new or updated SOPs could be delivered to the relevant employees with a few clicks. The system itself could identify when all employees had received them. Managers now have the ability to audit employees for compliance and provide additional training to those who need it.

In less than six months, the company blew by their goal for distributing SOPs, and reduced their process change training time by 90%! This is somewhat of an extreme example; the improvement was palpable. But if we didn’t have a target going in, it would have made the project a lot harder to implement and have such a measurable outcome.

 

Measure your changes against progress toward your goal

The last story showed both a measurable goal and progress toward that goal. We have lots of these stories though. So, in staying with the format of this post, I’ll just share another story about a goal set and progress measured.

A different logistics client had a challenging goal to reach. They wanted to improve their training process to decrease revenue losses due to accidents that caused damage to customer property. Implementing Acadia helped them move away from courseware and classroom training to make training a hands-on experience. By making training materials available in the field, not only did training time decrease, but so did losses.

On average, with their preceding system, it took employees three years to become proficient and consistent. Now, new employees are reaching the same level of quality in as few as three months. What’s more, employees who have received the new training have less accidents than the more tenured employees who received the old training. With less accidents, there’s less damage and less revenue loss.

It’s still early days for our customer using the new system, but with these measurements, it’s easy for them to see results. They’re confident this is just the beginning of the positive change they’ll experience.

 

Make adjustments based on what the results tell you

In our experience, it’s easier to make additional change when you have results from your previous projects. That’s where continuous improvement really gets exciting, and you start to realize what a powerful system it is.

One of our customers uses Acadia to provide consistent customer service through its call centers. After establishing One Best Way procedures and deploying them out to the team, they were able to see which employees referenced the procedures regularly and which ones didn’t.

Those who didn’t reference the procedures were more prone to making mistakes and providing poor customer service. Typically, these lower-performing employees would continue to struggle until they became so uncomfortable that they would quit or make mistakes that would require their removal.

Managers, with the help of Acadia, have begun a new program to provide more support to these employees. When team members who make mistakes (and have not accessed procedures that would have helped prevent those mistakes) are identified, they receive targeted content that they are required to acknowledge.

The targeted content describing correct processes will be followed up with quizzing that further reinforces the information and confirms knowledge comprehension. Managers can then determine if further training or coaching is needed.

While this is a long-term process meant to boost employee retention, early indications are that employees targeted to receive additional support are already showing changed behavior and improved performance.

 

Start today with a Kaizen Blitz!

The biggest enemy of Kaizen is the status quo. That’s why, when our prospects are struggling to get their arms around a major initiative, we urge them to try continuous deployment.

You could also try a “kaizen blitz”2, an event focused on addressing a particular issue in a short period of time (usually 2-10 days). A kaizen blitz should have a very clear and simple objective. Any resources you’ll need should be made available ahead of time and you must have a concept of the result you’re shooting for and a way to track it.

Because of the nature of continuous improvement projects and the fact that you will have results to show, don’t be surprised if your kaizen blitz snowballs into something bigger.

 

Sources:

  1. The History of Kaizen
  2. What is Kaizen?
  3. (Still) Learning from Toyota
  4. The Seven Guiding Principles of Continuous Improvement
  5. 6 Principles of the Continuous Improvement Model

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