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17 Lessons I Learned from Japanese Consultants (+PDF)

Over the years, I have worked with some premiere Lean consultants from Japan. Here are some of the many lessons I learned from them…

  1. Watch before asking. Observe a process before asking any questions about it. You’ll prevent biasing what you see.
  2. Listen. Listen to the noise around you-you’ll be surprised how much waste you can identify by sound.
  3. Keep shelves and benches short. It opens up the work area, making the area more visual. It also improves communication by removing barriers.
  4. Eliminate hammers. Hammers are an indicator of poor quality. They increase the risk of injury and they often cause defects when a blow misses its mark.
  5. Go to Gemba. Improvement doesn’t happen in a conference room. Kaizen teams should spend more time in gemba than they do in meetings.
  6. Be flexible. Be ready to change tack on a project if something upstream or downstream might have a bigger impact. Sometimes the champion selects the wrong process; don’t stick with a mistake. (Note: If this is happening more than rarely, you have a problem with your kaizen planning process.)
  7. Don’t let internal suppliers behave worse than external suppliers. If you wouldn’t tolerate certain behaviors from another company, why would you allow them within your own?
  8. Don’t let preconceived ideas limit you. This lightbulb went on for me when a Japanese consultant pointed out that two machines were only a few feet apart from each other, but on opposite sides of a wall. We ended up with a doorway between them.

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  1. Don’t argue something that can be measured. Hard feelings and wasted time can be avoided simply by grabbing a stopwatch and a clipboard.
  2. You probably have lots of what you need lying around. Often a piece of equipment can be used elsewhere. Look around before you buy, or better yet, get a good red tag process to manage idle equipment.
  3. Practice 5S. You probably also have lots of what you don’t need lying around. Get the clutter out of your work areas and keep it out.  
  4. Communicate kaizen changes daily. Many people wait too long to bring leaders and teams up to speed. Plan daily leader meetings to report progress of the kaizen, and communicate the plan to the frontline employees in the work area before making changes. (Note: This should not be the first time the team is talking to them! No surprises.)
  5. Learn what you are building. Physically touching and seeing parts helps a kaizen team understand what they are trying to improve. Lay all of the parts of a product out in a sort of exploded view. It gives great insight into how to produce it better.
  6. Use sketches prolifically. The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies to kaizen. Even a badly drawn picture can often demonstrate something that paragraphs can’t.
  7. Try rather than talk. Instead of allowing kaizen teams to endlessly argue whether something will work, try ideas out. Teams constantly accomplish things that they thought could not be done.
  8. Build models. Use clay, cardboard, wood, glue guns, tape, and pipe cleaners. Prove your concept on a small scale before you utilize a lot of resources on a big project.
  9. Big isn’t better. One piece flow through the value stream is important in the office and the shop floor. Small, slower machines in the right place are often much better than big, fast ones in the wrong place. For example, having multiple small printers located close by reduces walking waste and the errors created by batching projects in a centrally located print station.


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