A Japanese experience
May I take you briefly into one of my memories from my student days. I will never forget an event that I experienced as a young student in Japan. I worked as a maid in a big hotel. In the troupe that was responsible for housekeeping, there were maids of all ages, but there was also a lady who was well over 80, probably even over 90 years old, stout and very slow. She was a kind, friendly woman who was obviously no longer physically able to perform very well, but was always assigned to the group by the boss. There was also a group leader who was about 40 years old and she insisted on us to adjusting our pace to the old lady. As a result, we youngsters, barely covering two pillows and emptying a bin, had to leave our work and repeatedly sit down in the hallway with the old lady to have tea and chat. Recovered for a moment and a few anecdotes later, back to cleaning the rooms. But as soon as one section of work was done, everyone was called back to the hallway for a break. This constantly repeated interruption, this enormous slowness, with which we hardly made any progress in my perception, somehow only seemed to bother me. If we had cleaned the rooms without the friendly old lady, we would have completed the day’s task in a fraction of the time.
Where, if you don’t mind, is process optimization here?
The knowledge I had gained from business administration and Japanese studies, my knowledge of KAIZEN from the automotive industry, above all from the Toyota Group, this striving for constant improvement, constant process optimization, cost savings, combating waste on the process, I simply did not get consistent with what happened here.
That’s why I asked the owner of the house one evening what this procedure meant here. He replied the sentences to me that have been burned into me for my entire professional life:
“You obviously still haven’t understood KAIZEN! KAIZEN is not just about the fast, optimized, waste-free process. It’s about much, much more! This old lady was a chambermaid here in the early days of this house, when my grandfather lead it. She knows every guest. She knows our guests’ children, parents and grandparents, their stories, their preferences, the history of all their stays here. She knows our house, our history, our traditions and our development. She is highly regarded in our house. She feels connected to us throughout her life. She feels valued and is still motivated to support us until today. I always call her, when the chambermaid group is well mixed, because from our identity, from our strategic history, from the development of our market and customer base, from our overall development in the use of resources, to our roles and functions in the company, she knows everything and can evaluate it from her point of view. It is precisely this evaluation from her point of view that she can pass on to the relevant group of successors. I can’t imagine better leadership than hers, and for me that’s anything but a waste, that’s an incalculable gain for our company.“
The realization of the core
Only now did I understand what I so often marveled at in disbelief at other workplaces in Japan. Far away from books about KAIZEN, about process optimization, process streamlining, process smoothing, resource optimization, the core of it all became clear to me here in the country of origin: The nucleus of KAIZEN is the human being in the structure of change, because the human being is the driver of the adaption to continuous change. The system affects people and every single person affects the system. A systemic approach. KAIZEN is not just the isolated consideration of process optimization. It is the holistic view of an organization with its identity, its strategy development, its entire social structure of structure, roles, functions, in the middle of which people, in turn in the group surrounding them, the prevailing climate and their knowledge play the central role. Only then can sensible changes to processes and the use of resources be planned and driven forward in a targeted manner. There is not only the need to focus on the value chain. From time to time you need to focus on one point, but then again the open awareness for all processes in the company is key, because all processes are all interconnected. The isolated tunnel vision without appreciative, mindful leadership therefore rarely leads to the desired result in the long term.
Fluctuation is the most expensive factor in a business organization for me
KAIZEN is the philosophy of constant change for the better. But what we have translated from it is only a part, the monetary part. Unfortunately, in the West there often is far too much focus on simply maximizing profits by cutting back on processes and reducing to the resources that are absolutely necessary for this. Essential elements of KAIZEN, namely, for example, the ability to adapt to change, which must be maintained at all costs, are very often ignored. Sophisticated recording and control boards are hung up, numbers and metrics are fixed, savings are raised several times a day, often with a kind of tunneled vision on the daily or monthly goal, as an end in itself. In companies and organizations, however, we regularly experience high costs and expenses for the resulting damage: demotivation, fears and resistance due to excessive control, the feeling of not being seen as a person are the consequences. There is a loss of inner participation and, on the contrary, an increase in hierarchical dependencies instead of the people who are directly involved in the process working hand in hand with the decision-makers to jointly develop improvement options. This leads to internal layoffs, absences, long-term absenteeism and fluctuation. It takes time, energy, money and effort to train new employees again, to bring new teams together, to streamline processes again, to keep error rates low under constant changes or with internal distancing. Other departments are also burdened with unnecessary “hire and fire” processes. Managers then not only have difficulties with a smooth process flow, but also with induction, motivation, improvement of the working atmosphere. Fluctuation is one of the most expensive things companies pay for. There is real savings potential here.
Genuine Kaizen is lived mindfulness
KAIZEN in its original sense asks holistic questions: Are we authentic in the here and now, in what we want to represent to the outside world? What values do we really identify with? Do we live the guiding principles internally and externally, as it suits us, our product, our service and the times? How do we define profit in our organization? Only in a monetary way? And if so, do we really have all the cost-causing processes in the company or organizational structure on the screen? Aren’t we just looking at the value-added process forever and ever further? Do we realize that we have hundreds of millions of sub-processes around the value chain that we never measure, never quantify and never improve because we are so focused on the manufacturing or the delivery process?
Do we look just as carefully at the whole social system of our organization? The costs and failures that arise due to out-of-round structures, due to roles and functions that are hardly evolving? Are we strategically developing the knowledge of our managers and employees holistically on a planned learning curve of the company? Do we ensure that there are no long distances, but rather regular, up-to-date, appreciative, integrating exchanges that use experience and knowledge between those who are directly involved in the processes and those who are decisive in the organization? Or do we only have the usual employee appraisal once a year?
Genuine KAIZEN ensures holistic profit
When people in the processes, in manufacturing, in sales, in planning, in procurement and wherever else in an organization feel valued, integrated, accepted, heard and in the focus of what is going on in a company, when they experience real leadership, then they have no reason for internal resignation. But every reason to motivate them to contribute their skills, experience and knowledge. This ensures corporate stability in the areas of knowledge, climate, process optimization, authenticity towards customers and partners and much more. If people are allowed to live their calling in their job, then there is no need for incentive systems or motivational training. If profit in the company has a broader definition than mere currency conversion, then managers and employees are more productive, motivated, efficient, socially competent and resilient, and above all: they stay in the company! Internally and actually. Can we afford anything else?