Should you allow a competitor to visit your office or factory? This is a question often asked by small business managers. One answer is ‘No. They may get ideas about better ways to do things and use this information to gain an advantage over us in the market’.
But one of the most successful companies in the world, Toyota, freely allows anyone to visit their factories. As you can imagine visitors see things that Toyota has done to make its operations highly efficient in the factory and highly effective in the marketplace. Business and personal processes are all changing and improving. So why would the company share its secrets so freely? The answer to that question may surprise you. It is because anyone can see what Toyota is doing now, but their philosophy is one of ‘Continuous Improvement’. (The Japanese word for continuous improvement is Kaizen, itself a key process within the field of Lean Manufacturing) You can learn what they are doing now, but by the time you implement their processes they will be far ahead of where they are now. Business and personal processes will have evolved to an even higher level of development.
Small businesses can achieve continuous improvement in all their processes by adopting the ‘Lean Thinking’ way. It need not cost a lot, but successful utilization of the technique can pay handsome dividends. Here is what you need to do.
First, assess the current condition in one of your key processes. The process might be administrative, such as hiring employees, or production related, such as time and materials utilized to make products or services for sale. Current condition assessment can be dollar cost, time, customer complaints or any other condition that can be identified and measured.
Second, identify the target condition that you would like to see in the process. This could be a variety of things, such as lower cost, fewer errors, shorter time to produce, use of fewer materials, higher quality, etc.
Third, design tests or experiments to achieve the target condition, such as using new approaches, new techniques, and/or different methods. Then measure the outcome of your test or experiment. If it shows an improvement you are on your way to achieving ‘Kaizen’ and the competitive advantage that it will bring to your company.
Lean Thinking is a way of life in many successful small firms. It can generate huge gains in productivity and performance, often for very little cost. It can also generate higher levels of morale and job satisfaction because ideas for improvement can come from anywhere in your organization, not just from the top management, and it can therefore result in employee empowerment and a more highly engaged workforce.
Note: There have been numerous books written about the subject of ‘Lean’. One for an early introduction to the system (which I often use in my Entrepreneurship classes) is “Toyota Kata’, by Mike Rother, published by McGraw Hill.
Use this book to learn the fundamentals of Lean Process improvement and then search for and find ways to grow and develop a highly efficient and effective company. Don’t just see things as they are (current condition) and ask ‘why’? See things as they could be (target condition) and ask ‘Why Not’? Then go out and do it!