Lean is deep. It’s multi-faceted. Heck, even the “simple” stuff is profound.

These characteristics, along with (or should I say, in spite of) my own denseness, are why my lean learning never plateaus. Here’s a very recent example of two experiences that refined my kaizen appreciation.

Experience 1. This week I attended and spoke at the Sixth Annual Northeast Shingo Prize conference. It was a wonderful experience. (See below for a picture of the “four bloggers.”) The conference title was, “Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper.” Great title and great theme right? Like motherhood and apple pie. Who could ever argue with it?

Well, as many of us know, the title was derived from a Shigeo Shingo quote:

There are four purposes of improvement: easier, better, faster and cheaper.

Cool, right? Except, there’s another sentence that immediately follows – a sentence that should alter the mindset of most American allegedly “lean thinkers.”

These four goals appear in the order of priority.

Do you think that most executives would agree with that priority? I sincerely doubt it.

If we surveyed senior leaders, I would be quite confident that the order would be reversed. Unfortunately, such a hierarchy (no pun intended) does little to gain buy-in from the workforce and it is often inconsistent with the notion of respect for people. Which leads to my next recent experience.

Experience 2. (Actually this experience happened BEFORE the conference, but it works better explaining it in this order.) I was reading through the paper, “Transforming Kaizen at Toyota,” written by Koichi Shimizu from Okoyama University. This 29 page paper is undated, but I would guess it’s circa 2000. Shimizu presents a lot of information and analysis around volunteer and organized kaizen activities at Toyota.

Some take-aways:

  • Workers drive about 10% of the realized improvement and team leaders, production supervisors, engineers, etc. drive 90%. Here “realized improvement” is ostensibly around cost reduction through productivity and quality gains.
  • Workers principally engage in “voluntary kaizen” – kaizen circle activities and suggestions.
  • The purpose and effects of the voluntary kaizen, especially within Toyota’s US and European plants, are mainly around:
    • developing the (worker’s) kaizen mind and problem solving ability,
    • paying attention to quality and productivity,
    • perceiving the work-place as one’s own, and
    • developing self for promotion.

Occasionally, the worker generates a great idea around quality or working process improvement. But, the primary focus for the worker is typically around the “humanization of work. In other words, it starts with making the work EASIER. Just like Mr. Shingo said!


Here’s a picture of the four bloggers at the NE Shingo Prize conference. From left to right, yours truly (the old guy in the group), Tim MacMahon of A Lean Journey, Dave Kasprzak of My Flexible Pencil, and Mike Wroblewski of Got Boondoggle? It was great meeting these very talented folks!