Continuous Improvement – ‘Worthwhile or Worthless’

You may remember from my first foray into blogging writing, namely ‘China in your hand’, I offered the opinion that UK manufacturing companies can be as competitive as our Far Eastern cousins. If you missed it and you’re inclined, see the link below:

Now I know what you’re thinking……It’s all very well me banging on that us Limeys can be as competitive as the Far East, the question is ‘Can we, can we really?’

I borrowed the quote above from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. A Gentleman, American Computer Scientist and previously, the US Navy. Now I’m not usually one for promoting US commentary, at least not since the orange-faced, plastic haired, Donald J. Trump became the leader of the free world, but Admiral Hopper was spot on. When I hear the words ‘we’ve always done it this way’ it brings a Cheshire Cat-like grin to my face every time I hear it, for two very good reasons:

1.       Behind every utterance of this phrase, are improvements and savings possibilities that make the mind boggle…

2.       I remember the sketch below….and the thing is I’m usually looking at the person with the sword at the time.

There are many methods to improve your business, such as Six Sigma, Quality Circles, Lean, Business Process Re-Engineering (BPR), Value Stream Mapping and likely to be loads more…. In my many years of plugging away manufacturing stuff, none have been as effective as one simple approach. That one being, Kaizen, or in its original Japanese text:

This translated into English equates to ‘Change for Better’, or possibly plain and simple common sense.

Now I know that some of you will have different opinions on this, some will even challenge that Kaizen is an effective tool, and I myself have seen businesses where Kaizen has been implemented and died a death. In these cases where the Kaizen program has failed, there is usually one ‘umbrella’ reason that exists in all examples. The Kaizen program was not supported properly by senior management. Indeed, a stoic, determined and absolute level of support is required throughout the life of the program for it to deliver consistent results. This is not a program for the faint hearted. But in properly implementing Kaizen, you should expect to see, at the very least:

  • Improved staff morale
  • Improved efficiencies
  • Better Health & Safety practices
  • Improved profitability
  • Increased capacity
  • Less Waste
  • Reduced capital spend requirements (Creativity before Capital)

What is Kaizen?

I won’t bore you with the details but Kaizen was ‘invented’ in post war Japan by manufacturing companies with one simple task; that of reducing waste in all its forms, namely:

 1. Defective Products

 2. Over Production

3. Waiting Time

4. Non-Value Added Processing

5. Transportation

6. Inventory Excess- Materials/Parts

7. Motion Excess

8. Employee/Creativity

How does it work?

Kaizen is all about ‘bottom up’ improvement. The people who carry out the work, suggest and implement the improvement, not senior management. I have personally witnessed CEO’s sweeping the factory floor, CFO’s knee deep in machine oil, HR Directors painting a floor, I myself up to my waist in petroleum jelly (no jokes please). Frankly the astonishment of employees seeing the management carry out these tasks under the direction of one of their peers, is certainly a sight worth seeing.

Which Kaizen method should I use?

There are many ways to run Kaizen, the best, simplest and most effective way, in my opinion is to hold ‘Kaizen Events’. The events take the form of a team of individuals from a variety of areas of the business, brought together for one week (outside of their normal day to day duties), to focus on solving a specific issue. These events come in two shapes:

A Breakthrough Event

This event concentrates on making a change or improvement analysing and delivering that within that very week.

A Breakout Event

This event is designed to spread the improvements made in Breakthrough Events, across other similar areas of the business.

30-Day List

Now even the most enthusiastic team may not get everything they want done during the week. Any actions left over are added to a 30-day list. These will be managed and actioned by the team leader of the Kaizen team, post event. This always turns up some great opportunity for Kaizen promotion. I have witnessed (with a wry smile) a warehouse worker badgering a Managing Director after the event to complete the actions given to him during the event.


As outlined above and by means of an example, a small sample of results, during events, that I have been both physically and remotely involved in, I have seen the following, in various businesses:

  • An increase in saleable capacity of £1.5M
  • Machine changeover time reduced from 23 hours to 17 minutes
  • Subcontract labour reduced by £260k
  • Manufacturing footprint reduced by 55%
  • Offsite storage costs reduced by 100%
  • And on and on and on………..

Indeed, the fact that a team of individuals led by and managed by the employees, who are normally engaged in the process (that Kaizen is improving) on a daily basis, can make a significant improvement in a single week, creates an enormous enthusiasm not just in the team, but also in the workplace around the event.

On a recent (last week in fact) Kaizen event, there were as many as four additional ad hoc additional team members that managed to get ‘sucked in’ to the team, because while they were working nearby the event, the sheer enthusiasm of the team and the very visible improvements being affected, pulled them in. Whilst on this occasion, I would much rather have them producing, this is one of those times where you turn a blind eye, and relegate production to the event itself…..An investment in the future commitment of the workforce to the Kaizen program.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

  • There must be a detailed plan both for the number and frequency of events, including the processes (to be improved) and the expected results. This plan must be ‘set in stone’ and supported by management.
  • There can be no ‘competing priorities’. When a Kaizen event is being held, every effort must be made to help the team deliver visible improvements. As an example, if an individual on an event is needed for production, you absolutely MUST NOT remove he/she from the event. Effective up-front planning usually prevents this, but moving team members out is a slippery slope and suggest that management are just ‘paying lip service’ to the program itself.
  • Effective communication to all employees about what they can expect from Kaizen prior to the program commencing is essential, since everyone will participate, from the CEO to the cleaner. This is communication is absolutely essential since any employee refusing to attend a Kaizen event without good cause, is typically ‘refusing to carry out a reasonable request’ and exposing that employee to disciplinary action.

It is important to stress to all stakeholders that Kaizen will make the employee’s day to day job both safer and easier. This is key to the communication process.

  • Finally, the hardest discipline to master within any Kaizen program is SUSTAINABILITY. I make no apologies for the caps lock and bold text. Properly supporting and sustaining Kaizen is paramount.
  •  Support must be given to the team during the event, from all areas they request.
  • 30-day lists must be completed within 30 days
  • Events must happen on schedule and without cancellation

Remember the employees are looking for that tiny ‘chink’ of daylight, so any deviation should be discouraged


My apologies for the length of this (although by the time you’re reading this, someone may have whittled it down somewhat). I had intended to write a brief and humorous piece, but then as I wrote it became a ‘soap-box’. Hopefully many of you have given up by now and stopped reading.

Continuous improvement is essential in any organisation. No, it’s not just essential it’s fundamental to every business. I would argue that in the long run it’s as essential as the order book. Whichever method you choose, I choose Kaizen, I wish you every success, unless you’re a competitor that is. It goes without saying.

You will need help to kick this off. Do not go it alone. The more preparation up front, the more likely to succeed.

My personal vote = WORTHWHILE and then some!

Brighton Sheet Metal have just started a new Kaizen program. If you’re a stakeholder, customer (current, past or potential) or a supplier, please feel free to contact us to discuss Kaizen. We are happy to help and will gladly share our experiences with you. Finally, to finish as I started, another quote that is close to my heart and whilst Mr Einstein was a lot smarter than I; I have better hair.

Blog Post by Mark Williams, MD.

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