- Being lean means being efficient
- Kaizen math – does it really make sense to save seconds?
- How do you introduce the lean way to the team?
- Example of Kaizen in our Customer Support department
- The one thing: Never stop improving!
Being lean means being efficient
The term lean manufacturing1 was first attributed to Toyota factories. The Japanese carmaker discovered that constantly fixing small inefficiencies when building cars resulted in exponential savings and productivity gains in the long term. The truth is that any business can benefit immensely from this insight.
Being lean means constantly being open to improvements and seeing where time or resources are wasted. While you’re performing any task or process, you’re also observing how it can be optimized or streamlined. It means you never stop improving anything that you do.
There are two Japanese words that I want you to remember:
Muda, which means “wastefulness”2. Do you spend five minutes every day copying and pasting something? Maybe this can be automated. Attend a meeting that doesn’t bring value to anyone? Maybe this meeting needs to be questioned or the goal of the meeting can be achieved in a different way. Start considering how your day is spent. When do you waste time? Where do you waste resources?
Kaizen, which means “continuous improvement”3. This assumes that there is always room for improvement. One less click. One less step. One five-line function instead of 20 lines of code every time. And the changes don’t need to be spectacular – just switching the position of something from left to right sometimes saves seconds, and in the long run, these seconds can add up to save hours.
Kaizen math – does it really make sense to save seconds?
Our VP of Engineering, Radek4, recently explained “Kaizen math” to our team and how we should look at improving things. He argues that before you start improving something, you should look at it this way:
If you see something that takes you an additional one minute each time you do it and you know it can be improved, feel free to spend around one hour on fixing and optimizing it.
When it applies to the team, it’s even more:
When you see everyone on your team wastes one minute on a certain activity and you have an idea on how to improve it, feel free to spend up to four hours making it better.
Why spend hours on a small one-minute improvement?
Because it compounds. You initially save one minute, but later you also save much more on not being frustrated over losing that precious minute of your time… and eventually you might even see additional improvement that will save you another minute. Apart from not wasting time, your work will just feel so much more joyful.
The Kaizen math checks out: if you do something 10 times per day that wastes one minute of your time, that’s 50 minutes in a work week. If you spend one hour fixing the issue, you’ll gain the one hour back in just a little over a week! And in the following weeks, you won’t be wasting that minute at all.
Fixing one thing will sharpen your “improvement saw.”
Do you know what it means to sharpen the saw?5 Before using a saw to cut down a tree, you should first spend the time sharpening it to make the cutting more efficient.
That’s exactly what happens once you improve something that will make your work easier. You’ll be gradually opening your eyes to more Muda around you and will more likely be performing Kaizen improvements.
You’ll eventually start seeing the compound savings of time gained through small incremental changes. Hopefully leading by example, you’ll motivate everyone around you to do the same. Improving practices, streamlining processes and just simplifying things can become a pretty contagious movement.
Improving is not an event; it’s a change of mindset
The whole idea of a lean approach is that it’s a way of life. It’s not a one-time event; it’s a new approach to work. Kaizen means continuous improvement for a reason, because it’s a process that never stops.
There’s always room for improvement. Always.
Having said that, I’ll contradict myself in a few moments, because sometimes you do have to start with events to create an improvement mindset.
How do you introduce the lean way to the team?
It’s not easy. People are used to doing their work a certain way. You have to be patient. You have to set an example. You have to keep on keepin’ on. Here are some ideas we used to start implementing the lean approach.
Idea 1. Schedule feedback events.
Just as I described at the end of the last chapter on deciding, we very often schedule a lessons-learned meeting where we review our past decisions and see if there’s anything we can improve. The goal of this meeting is to think about all the ways things can be done better in the future.
Yes, I know, it’s actually a Kaizen event, something I just said shouldn’t be the norm – but through my experience, such events teach people to open their eyes to potential improvements. And believe me, people will open their eyes slowly.
And remember each Friday to do a weekly review of your work. It’s a natural feedback loop that lets you examine your past week: you can see how you spent it, identify how much of it was Muda and determine how you can do better next week.
Idea 2. Make feedback loops an integral part of whatever you do.
Remember the “Pyramid of Communication”? The second level of it is feedback, and there’s a reason for this. We make giving feedback to people a thing we do. With feedback, improvement suggestions will follow. After all, it’s easier to suggest improvements to other people’s work than your own.
As mentioned in past chapters, we add comments to tasks, to paragraphs of documents and to code, when someone does a “code review” of another programmer’s work.
Encourage feedback from others; without it, your work will hardly ever improve.
Trick 3. Automate work as much as you can!
Mindless work and repetitive tasks are frustrating. We shouldn’t be spending our valuable time on these tasks. Our contribution should be in creative work, not repetitive chores.
That’s why you should automate stuff whenever you can:
– Learn scripts on your servers to automate server setup if needed. – Learn Automator, bash or other ways to automate stuff on your computer. – On iOS, there are Siri Shortcuts that can really speed up anything repetitive that you do on your iPhone or iPad. When writing this book, I had scripts that helped me format each of these chapters and submit them to the NoOffice.org site. – On Android, you can use Automate or Tasker to speed things up. – Many apps or web apps that you’re using have automation. There are marketing automation apps or social media posting apps that can be used extensively to offload your work and do things in the background. – There are dedicated web apps to automate stuff between other web apps – and you can use them without any programming knowledge. Just follow simple tutorials.6 – Don’t reinvent the wheel: create templates for projects or tasks. When you’re onboarding customers or employees in the same way, have a standard onboarding template that you use each time.
Idea 4. Simplify and reduce the barrier of entry.
As you have seen in previous chapters to this book, we make sure to simplify things:
– We hold “weekly, but optional” meetings every week at the same time, in the same virtual room and with the same group of people – it makes it easy for everyone to remember which meeting is held where and when. – Each meeting has a calendar entry with the link to the virtual room meeting, so you can join the meeting from the calendar app with just one click. – Personally, I schedule my meals every day at the same time. Again, it helps me plan my work when I know when the next break happens. – I also schedule my “focused time” when I want to work on something without distraction. As I know when our meetings take place, I can schedule two hours of uninterrupted work easily.
Simplifying things and reducing the barrier of entry in one aspect of teamwork opens your eyes to further optimizations. It becomes a thing that we all do.
Idea 5. Show off your improvements.
This is something we need to practice more in our team. Record a short video or screen capture of how you’ve optimized something or reduced the number of steps to getting your task done. Quickly explain what was frustrating, how you went about fixing it and how it works now after you’ve improved it.
Basically, show the before and after video. This is the most impactful thing you can do.
Example of Kaizen in our Customer Support department
Let’s finish off this chapter on the lean approach with a practical example that you might find helpful.
A little over a year ago we realized that some of the customer support interactions were not up to our standards. This is problematic, as we want our customer care to be the best in business. I proposed a weekly review of our support emails with Kaizen in mind.
Every week, one of our support reps (a different person each week) would review all email exchanges with our customers for the week, choose around 10 problematic ones and add them to a report. Then, the chosen rep, Iwona (the department head) and I, (the CEO) would review the report and meet to go over the details.
We’d analyze each of the cases one-by-one. The interactions in the report were anonymized so that I wouldn’t know who of the customer support reps wrote each email or which customer was affected. We’d focus not on the who but on the what happened, considering how we could improve our interactions in the future.
This process was a success because:
– It started as a “Kaizen event” and started opening the eyes of each customer support rep to potential improvements. – With each meeting, things were improving and the support reps had to dig deeper and look for less obvious problems – they were gradually sharpening their improvement saw. – As weeks progressed, I heard from Iwona that the entire team felt more motivated than ever to improve their interactions and to find a better way of doing things. – The usage of templates skyrocketed. We still respond to people personally, but now these responses are much more coherent, as each rep starts off with a template and then customizes it to the customer’s case. – Ideas for improvements stopped coming from the top; now most of them come from the reps themselves, and they are proud of it!
The one thing: Never stop improving!
Introduce the lean approach to your team. Begin with yourself: look for Muda in the way you work and keep improving things based on Kaizen math. Lead by example and inspire others to always look for improvements. You’ll have more time for creative work and your job will bring you more joy than ever. Remember, you don’t need to search for big improvements; focus on the smallest ones – learn to save seconds to earn back minutes and then hours!
For further reading on the subject of lean, I recommend a great book 2 Second Lean by Paul Akers7.
This term was coined by Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. ↩