Kaizen Your Way to Productivity
The low-cost, low-risk method offers continuous improvement
By Bob Yenkner
One of the biggest wastes in any dental laboratory is poor productivity. A laboratory cannot afford to have people sitting around or working inefficiently. If there is a better way to perform a task, minimize errors, solve a problem, or reduce the cost of a process, the employees need to have a voice and responsibility to take action.
"Kaizen" refers to a culture of sustained, continuous improvement focusing on eliminating waste in all systems and processes of an organization. With a kaizen approach, the intent is to be better today than yesterday. In other words, numerous small changes over time will yield large improvements. This approach is contrary to common business practices where big returns, large projects, and huge budgets are the expectation. The key to kaizen success is not to look for perfection in solutions, but to make less-than-perfect incremental changes that improve the process and continue to build on prior successes—and failures.
The Japanese word "kaizen" is well known on the floors of factories all over the world. Originally a Buddhist term, kaizen comes from the words, "Renew the heart and make it good." The word kaizen is actually made up of two words: "kai" (which means "to alter, renew, reform, modify, or break apart") and "zen" (to "make good or better"). The word literally means "to change for the better." Adding the word "blitz" (lightning fast) translates into "rapid change." Unfortunately, rapid change is still an oxymoron for many businesses. In everyday Japanese, kaizen means improvement. For people in factories, though, kaizen means a lot more than that. It means the relentless process of finding and eliminating waste. That is why kaizen is sometimes translated in English as "continuous improvement." Experts felt that saying merely "improvement" gave the wrong impression.
A common misunderstanding of the word kaizen is the belief that it refers to Japanese factory management practices in general. This may be due to the fact that often people learn about these practices in a Gemba Kaizen Event, or Continuous Improvement Workshop. This is often a week-long workshop held in a certain area of a factory (this area is called the gemba), to solve problems immediately by finding waste and eliminating it. People then have a personal experience with this challenge, and thus the word kaizen retains a connection. But the kaizen process is only one part of the whole. Kaizen can happen every day. Kaizen raises the need to constantly question, discover better methods, and make improvements in a way that is going to make the job easier for the people performing the task, as well as better for the customer.
Kaizen provides an outsider/insider perspective to process challenges, which offers more and varied solutions to make the process more efficient. The traditional kaizen event takes place over a 5-day period, complete with a dedicated team of four to six people from various departments. However, the typical laboratory probably cannot take that many people out of production for that length of time, so accommodations will have to be made. This starts with defining a small scope of work that can be completed with reduced hours and people. Once that scope is defined, the laboratory can commit the necessary hours and people in any number of ways, such as working a short shift (6 hours) and then working another four hours on the project for multiple days until the goal is achieved. Yes, some overtime will be required.
The assigned personnel should be trained on waste identification, basic team-building skills, and the appropriate productivity tools necessary to attack the problems. The team will then get to work on creating a baseline measurement, dissecting the problem, and developing recommendations for corrective actions. If solutions can be put in place during the meeting periods, all the better. The team is also responsible for documenting the solutions and process, as well as providing any training needed for the technicians. Finally, the kaizen team will monitor the results for the planned or designed improvement as compared to the baseline measurement taken.
Dental laboratories can utilize this method of kaizen to calibrate and cross-train their technicians, as an added value. Calibrating and cross-training provides an outsider/insider perspective to process challenges, which may offer solutions to make the process more efficient. Furthermore, calibrating in a laboratory provides benchmarking and efficiency. In this way, all of the technicians recognize the laboratory's product and participate collectively to achieve it. Accomplishing this would significantly reduce operational and subjective stress, increase efficiency, and produce a rewarding culture with common goals and outcomes, all adding to productivity and to the laboratory's bottom line.
The best way to learn about kaizen is to participate in a kaizen "blitz" event. It is by doing and applying and then repeating the process so that the greatest learning and experience is gained and momentum is built. This is where an experienced kaizen facilitator is valuable, as they provide the "train the trainer" skills and guide the team to success as they learn how to conduct a blitz.
To be successful, a kaizen blitz must be directly linked to your business strategic plan. Most companies have scarce resources, so it is wise not to work on activities that do not provide financial benefit. Keep in mind that not all kaizens will have an obvious financial impact but will certainly offer improvements on other things necessary to maintain business, such as customer service, a new product introduction, or a quality issue to resolve. A kaizen blitz on non-linked items is commonly referred to as a "rogue" kaizen, where resources are expended but the strategic plan is not impacted or benefited.
Kaizen is an extremely valuable tool in the war on lost productivity. It's also low-cost, low-risk, and definitely high-reward. Organizational improvements—such as the reduction of operational and subjective stress, increased efficiency, and a team-oriented culture with common goals—combined with the financial benefits are compelling reasons to make kaizen a part of your business.
About the Author
Bob Yenkner is the owner of Practical Process Improvement in East Hampton, Connecticut, and partners with Business Development Associates to bring productivity improvements to dental laboratories.