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Kaizen Supply Chain: 8 Focus Areas for Achieving and Maintaining High Quality

Sean Ito | 14 July 2021

Kaizen is a term that we’ve all likely heard at some time or another. Its use in various companies around the world has only grown, especially as they look to improve and refine materials handling and order fulfillment practices.

Adjustments in technology, software, and employee development help in creating a flexible, resilient strategy that thrives during market changes, like we’re seeing today. However, deeper changes in practice and process guided by Kaizen philosophies can help clear the way for greater impact by advanced automation and employee development efforts.

Kaizen: A Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement” is also known as a foundational element for lean production methodology.

How do you create an environment where Kaizen concepts can thrive? And, what does it mean to practice Kaizen?

Changes Start with the Right Target

Siloed operations and inefficient tasks can trigger small delays and problems that ultimately impact your customers, either in experience or delivery of a quality product.

Kaizen is a mechanism for uncovering and making problems known so they can be resolved long-term. Unlike other efforts that require large, dramatic improvements to make big changes, Kaizen is focused on small improvements and spends time developing work in progress. 

To start, you need to:

  1. Understand the current status of operations, processes and tasks.
  2. Set the ideal target or goal.  

When identifying the “ideal” consider “level-up” goals that help achieve that ideal. Often, identified ideals cannot be easily achieved. That makes it very likely they will be abandoned and remain unachieved. To mitigate that, it’s important to think through the required chronological steps.

Clarifying these two key elements help more clearly define the gap that exists between the points. Rather than just focusing on development, envision “what it should be” and take hold of the status quo. With a clear direction and the right target, small changes add up to big savings in time and cost.

8 Kaizen Focus Areas

At its core, Kaizen, which inspired the Toyota Production System (TPS), focuses on a lean approach in order to quickly identify problems and eliminate unnecessary wastes within operations.

There are eight key areas for Kaizen:

  1. Improvements based on needs – Clarify the purpose through the use of an evaluation index for measuring needs.
  2. Thorough pursuit of ideals – Don’t only do what you can do. Actively challenge what you should do. Is there a better or different approach?
  3. Genchi-Genbutsu (Go and See) – Study the situation on-site and go to the source to truly understand the work and processes. 
  4. Thorough pursuit of true intentions – Use TPs’ “5 Whys" technique to identify the root causes to problems by asking the question “why” as many times as you need. The process, not limited to five rounds, brings focus and helps to identify tangible issues that can then be addressed. 
  5. Teamwork – Involve those doing the work to be part of the process. People who do the work know the facts and situations well.
  6. Immediate action – Kaizen respects speed rather than skill. Take immediate action to clarify questions, resolve assumptions, and implement resolutions when you think of it.
  7. Improve the work first – DC and warehouse automation technology is an investment no matter how large or small the project. It is equally important to invest in the operations and processes. Doing so can shed light on the right automation equipment for your needs.
  8. Review and evaluate – Once the policy and changes are decided, make sure to check that safety and quality are adequately met.

Creating the Right Conditions for Kaizen

Improvement is challenging; even if you understand the reasons behind the need to change operation practices. This challenge can be felt across various companies and industries. I have, personally, experienced this in my various roles in both manufacturing and supply chain and logistics.

To create a more accepting and comfortable setting for success in using Kaizen, consider thinking through the following questions.

  • Do you have an achievable ideal?
  • Are there clear benchmarks in place?
  • How do you currently identify and eliminate waste?
  • Can you visualize or map out the Kaizen plan?
  • Are you ready to implement the plan – resources, authority, organization buy-in?
  • Are there any challenges to making immediate changes?

Overall, consider if the workplace is a good culture fit for Kaizen. Does the culture invite on-site discussions and encourage ingenuity without fear of failure? Are there any challenges or hurdles that need to be addressed first? Your foundation is key no matter what business philosophy you may subscribe to.

Lessons Learned

In 2003, as I worked with a new production plant in Poland, we discovered a disconnect between two departments – administrative parts ordering and operations parts receiving – that was unknowingly impacting our customers.

This discovery was made through a Kaizen approach – we reviewed the current situation, identified problems and current processes to uncover the underlying disconnect. Through this discovery we were able to identify tangible solutions like opening team communication between administration and operations. Prior to introducing new technology, like improved parts ordering tracking tools, this cultural shift in removing division helped to fuel new creativity and initiate problem solving for finding the “right” tool to improve overall customer experience.

Kaizen techniques helped us better understand and create an strong foundation we could build on. Without applying Kaizen, we might not have challenged the solution for a sufficient resolution or misused funds for a “band-aid” solution that didn’t adequately resolve the issue.

Continuous Improvement Cycle

Thinking through and creating the framework is an important step towards long term, positive impact.  To really sustain continued improvement, it’s important to nurture people who will drive the small changes throughout the company and set appropriate ideal targets.

Create a culture of “understanding” and “sharing of experiences” to make problem solving and waste management part of the process. It’s not a process for criticism but for learning, asking “why,” considering new ways of thinking, and testing those ideas.

We can learn from failure, but we can’t learn from inaction. That philosophy is part of our Bastian Solutions core values in order to deliver the best material handling and logistics solution to our customers through teamwork, collaboration and trust. If you would like to further discuss the benefits of Kaizen, reach out to our team at Bastian Solutions.

Author: Sean (Satoshi) Ito

Sean is Director of Corporate Quality with Bastian Solutions. He has an engineering degree in electromechanical instrumentation and maintenance technologies. Bringing 30 years of project management and manufacturing and logistics knowledge, Sean has worked with Toyota Manufacturing and Industries Corporation and more recently, Toyota Advanced Logistics North America. Since 2017 after acquisition, he came to the US to start the install of TPS & Toyota Culture for Bastian Solutions’ manufacturing business units. It was a success and now his focus is on other business units to develop our entire solution quality.

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