Solving Small Business Problems the Kaizen Way

by Ed Martin

Running a business means you constantly run into all kinds of problems, both big and small, serious and time consuming, annoying and costly. The question is how do you tackle them? How do you know which ones to fix, ignore or band-aid over?

Kaizens Can Help
I learned about the power of the kaizen (rhymes with dry pen) when working with a company that was heavily into continuous improvement and doing things the Toyota way. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means improvement. Blah, blah blah, some boring history (Toyota Production System)… Toyota very successful blah blah blah… Anyway, even though Toyota is a giant corporation and you most likely are not so large, you can take some lessons away from what they do and put them to work for yourself with surprising results.

From Little Acorns
For Toyota, kaizens tend to be little things. A worker sees a problem on the production line, a little group gets together and they solve it on the spot. All these little solutions put together eventually add up to big savings and improved quality. They’ve certainly do the trick for Toyota.

An additional benefit is that you get in the habit of seeing a problem and fixing it, which tends to make your life a whole lot easier over time. Bigger problems and logjams start to magically dissolve as each individual roadblock is cleared.

Kaizens were originally intended for manufacturing processes, but really they will work just as well with any kind of process. I’ve seen them used in developing software, HR offices and going through basic work-flows.

Break Things Down
This brings me to a second suggestion for tackling a problem. Sit down and do some analysis. If other people are involved, bring them in too. Go through your work process where the problem occurs. Break it into individual component actions. Make a storyboard or do it in step-by-step sequence, whatever works for you. You’ll start to see where the bottlenecks happen and where the problems are. You should also see places where you can change what you do to improve the situation.

Each place where you see an opportunity to make an improvement is a potential kaizen event. You can decide which ones to take on first. Go for the ones that give the most reward for fixing them or are the biggest pain points for you. Its okay to go after the low hanging fruit, too. The point is that you look at problems and solutions in a new way.

Going through this exercise does have some other benefits as well. It can help you find new markets or a new product or service, or maybe even a whole new business as you break apart problems and find solutions to them.

You can use this approach to plan projects as well. Break them into smaller chunks you can more easily manage. This also lets you get quicker feedback from customers so that if there is a problem you can address it right away instead of waiting til delivery day.

More Kaizen
If this stuff interests you, there is plenty of info available about the Toyota Production System, continuous improvement, Lean, and quality on line. A quick trip to Google and Wikipedia will get you started.  One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way is a good book on using kaizens.  Even though most of the things written are for large companies, even the smallest microbusiness can apply some of the concepts. It never hurts to learn some new ideas and to take a fresh look at what you are doing to see where you can improve.

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You can always contact me at MicroBizMadeSimple.

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