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Changing Minds


The kaizen approach can simplify your supply chain.

By Stephen Francis & Tony Donofrio

In past columns for Wholesale and Distribution International, we’ve stressed the importance of simplicity, often recommending comprehensive solutions such as Transportation Management System software to achieve it.

This kind of solution may be out of reach for some companies – perhaps they lack the budget or the decision rights to make a big-ticket purchase with a long-term commitment. With this in mind, we’d like to outline one of the simplest, quickest and most profound shifts you can make in pursuit of simplicity and improved functioning: the adoption of the kaizen mindset.

If you have been exposed to lean manufacturing, you will have heard this term before; as with many lean terms, it’s a Japanese word, one that roughly translates to “improvement.”

Usually, companies use kaizen to refer to a focused “improvement blitz” conducted over several days with participants drawn from various departments and disciplines. Team members roam around, trying to remove waste from a process, sometimes armed with financial data and perhaps a list of the “Seven Wastes” to guide them.

But at its most fundamental, kaizen is really a mindset and a way of looking at the world in which small changes, implemented every day, add up to big differences down the line. You don’t have to be in management to use this mindset, as anyone can encourage their colleagues to join in – in fact, you can do it alone if necessary during your day-to-day.

Where To Start

How do we know where to aim this new lens? Earlier, we mentioned the “Seven Wastes” this is a list of ways that companies lose value, which drives up prices and slows things down. The classic list includes waiting, inventory, downtime, over-processing, movement (in place), travel (from place to place) and worst of all, over-production. We add an eighth waste: skills/talents. Very often, we aren’t getting anywhere close to the potential out of our people, so this is a big one. If you place “skills” before “downtime” in that list, you get the acronym “WISDOM TO” – this can help you remember them later.

Look around you, right now, and apply that list of wastes to what you see. If you’re reading this on a train or plane, you’ll see lots of travel. Could some of those people have used video-conferencing instead of flying? Perhaps you can see a paper form that is harder to complete than the New York Times crossword puzzle, an example of over-processing. Maybe you’re just waiting around for a delivery.

If you feel inspired to make an improvement, we recommend you start with something small that doesn’t depend on other people for success perhaps that annoying form. Could it be printed double-sided with instructions on the back or, if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, perhaps eliminated altogether? A good question to ask here is “If we pretended for a moment that it was possible, how might we bring that about?”

When considering an improvement opportunity, here are some other questions you might ask: “What would this look like if it were simple?”, “What simple and quick action step would make a small difference here? Is there something simple and quick that would make a big difference?” These questions are helpful, given that projects always look simpler before we start them. We also recommend that you keep asking “How can I get most of the benefits with less effort?”

You’ll notice that we’re offering you questions here, rather than a bunch of answers. The core of the kaizen mindset is a questioning attitude — it’s looking at the world and asking “Does it have to be that way? Is it worth our time to find a better way? What could we try right here, right now?”

If you’re in any sort of leadership position, we invite you to encourage this questioning attitude in your people. Yes, you’ll hear some goofy questions and get some wacky improvement suggestions. But if you’re patient, eventually you may also hear some simple, economical improvement ideas that reduce the friction in your processes, saving you time and money.

Tony Donofrio, principal and head of Argo Consulting’s supply chain practice, has more than 30 years of supply chain experience. He has a reputation for taking on tough challenges, creating growth opportunities and outperforming the competition. Stephen Francis, senior consultant, co-created the Argo Integrated Management System (AIMS). He develops and implements tools that drive deep and rapid change for Argo’s clients.

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