Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lost in Translation

No matter how well you plan, prepare and perform, sometimes things just happen that you do not expect. Sometimes these things are painful and sometimes they are magical. And sometimes, things just get lost in translation. Kaizen events are certainly a great playground for the unexpected. More times than not, the priceless moments on a lean journey for me originate on kaizen events.

Last week, I led an office kaizen event focused on a key customer related process that proved to be a great challenge to improve. The team was diverse in both functional responsibility and heritage. We had one team member from the Ukraine, another from Columbia and one from the Philippines. It turns out to be a great mix of talent and only one member had any previous kaizen event experience.

The first morning we drill through some lean basics to introduce the kaizen approach. We cover a fair bit of information which included seeing muda (waste) to eliminate it. Of course, I stressed that the true learning will be at gemba (the actual place) with discovery and learn-by-doing.

At first, the kaizen team members were a bit on the shy side but by the end of the morning, they were a quite lively group. I love the raw energy that a kaizen event stirs deep within us, along with large bits of anticipation and nervousness. By far, the best feeling is the huge rush of “anything is possible” as the team embarks.

This entire team was extremely eager to start. I ended the morning session and asked if they had any more questions at this point and if they understood the next steps. After a few questions, I asked again, “Where are we going and what are we looking for?” One team member yelled back with high energy and in complete sincerity, “We are going the gumbo and we looking for Buddha!” A hush of silence. Then everyone burst out in laughter. It was a priceless moment. After wiping the tears from my eyes, the translation confusion was politely straightened out.

By no means is this story meant to offend anyone of the Buddhist faith or to make light of religion. To be perfectly clear, lean principles are not focused on looking for Buddha in our process and eliminating it. It is muda we want to eliminate.

Upon reflection on this event, maybe we are looking for Buddha after all; only in the sense that Buddha can refer to “anyone who becomes enlightened”. Isn’t the best place for enlightenment of our process found in gemba? Are we not seeking understanding before we can improve?

Epilogue: This team worked fantastic together during the rest of the week long kaizen event with over 13 aha moments. They reduced the process lead time 70% by Friday without open kaizen homework lists. Even with this huge reduction, the team sees more room for improvement which will continue the kaizen process.


Unknown said...

yea.. kaizen is simple but amazing. We should benefit from it. Cheers

Unknown said...

If you look deeply enough at Toyota, you'll see an ingrained sense of Zen Buddhism. Enlightenment is spiritual perfection, and continuous improvement toward it may run through several lifetimes - perhaps an infinite number. Medititation - gemba observation - reveals truth, and allows that which obscures truth to drop away. Not being a Buddhist, this is a very rough comparison. Go on Amazon and look for "The Diamond Cutter," a Tibetan Buddhist angle on business management. You might be surprised at the connections.

Mike Wroblewski said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look it up.