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Two Sides to Every Improvement

There are 2 sides to every improvement.

Whether you are in full swing and have your whole factory making improvements on a daily  basis, or you’re just getting started.  Here are some considerations with respect to having your people making improvements.

Let’s kick this off by defining what “improvement”  means.  There is what you may find in a dictionary and I will let you look that up if you would like.  For me, It’s a simple action that makes your job easier, end of story.  This could be something that saves 5 hours, 5 minutes or 5 seconds, and I would still applaud the effort to make your job easier.  No improvement is too small.  It’s the compounding effect of making it a daily habit that is important.

Doesn’t this sound magical?   All your people running around making daily improvements, with each passing day their jobs are getting just a little easier and more productive.  Could there be any down side to all this wonderful activity?   Of course you’re suspecting a trick question here,  and you’re right. Yes, there is a downside, or rather a potential downside.   Actually, there are a few.

Fist thing you are likely to run into is one person makes an improvement in a common area.  They love their improvement and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  After a few days, someone else changes it.  They think they have found a better way.  Naturally person “A” thinks person “B” is a halfwit, and vice versa.  People undoing other peoples improvements will likely be a reoccurring problem.

Next, it’s not uncommon to have a couple people that are a few cans short of a 6 pack.  If everyone has the freedom to make improvements, you will undoubtedly run into a situation where someone is thinking they are making an improvement but actually making the process worse.  Heartbreaking to have to shut them down or undo the improvement  they just made.

Another common improvement pitfall is when people start suggesting, or worse yet doing, improvements in other people’s areas.  It’s really easy to see other people’s problems and ignore our own.  Critical that people stay focused in their area of influence unless they are participating on a cross functional team.

Then there is what I call the improvement interruption.  Where someone is making an improvement of telling you about their ideas and you railroad the idea with your opinion.  You have to navigate this one skillfully.  As the leader if you make a suggestion, a person may take that as “this is what I should do”, and you lose the opportunity of their idea actually being better than yours.

Last but not least, is not knowing what improvements to make, or if their ideas (because everyone has ideas) are actually going to make a difference.  Some people are just a bit nervous to expose an idea if they don’t feel safe in that environment.

This is the basic layout of an improvement:   

Current state.              Improvement     Future state

We all have a current state, it’s exactly where we are right now.  Then the moment someone makes an improvement we immediately progress to the future state.  But how can we ensure the future state doesn’t include any of the above pit falls?  Simple, quantify.  Have a very simple way for people to quantify their improvement efforts.  To know if they are about to make an improvement you can use what we call the improvement Trident.   Weigh an improvement  activity against these 3 factors:

SAFETY – does the process get safer, or at least not less safe.

QUALITY- does the quality of anything go up.

SIMPLICITY- does it make the process simpler in any way.

If you answer YES to one or more of these there is a good chance you’re  about to make an improvement, so press on.


And here is the part that 99% of all companies forget to do.  Quantify that future state.  Actually take a few moments to verify the improvement had its intended effect.  Having people calculate this for themselves is a great way to keep their creative juices flowing.  Remember to keep it simple, don’t try to calculate to the last penny, most of us aren’t accountants.  Create a company wide formula that give you the general idea of what kind of dollars that improvement saved the company.

Let’s say you make an improvement to your assembly process by ensuring tools required are within reach.  You have collected the Current state data, you have made the improvement, and now have the future state data.

You saved 3 minutes per cabinet, it cost you 1 sheet of material, 1/2 sheet of Kaizen foam took 2 hours to complete and you make 30 boxes per day.

Rules like this will keep it simple for everyone:

-$1.00 per minute

-Sheet goods are $60 ea

-non standard materials at cost, may have to ask someone for these #’s.

I like to calculate the savings in the 1st week, the 1st month and a whole year.  The above improvement would look like this:

$3 x 30 = $90 per day saved

$60.00 for the sheet of material used

$30 in kaizen foam

$1 x 120 = $120 labour investment.

Week 1 = ($90 x 5 days = $450) – ($60+$30+$120) = $240 saved

Month 1 = ($450 x 4 weeks = $1800

1 Year = $21,600

This really bring to light the benefits of a small 3 minute improvement.  Now imagine you have 10 employees who did this only once per year.  Thats $216,000.  And everyone of those dollars goes to the bottom line.  And how good does that feel for the person making the improvement.  It’s hard to deny it when it’s math.

If you quickly quantify each improvement after its done, all the pitfalls go away.  Someone wouldn’t dare undo an improvement they knew saved the company money.  A completed improvement that yielded a net zero future state would immediately be exposed as a sign to hit the drawing board again.

I encourage you not to forget this critical step in making improvements.  Quantify, and share with the team.

Improvements that feel good are nice, so long as there are numbers to back it up.