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Empowering Your Employees

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI  February 1998 Column


Kaizen gives employees the power to make rapid changes and keeps companies competitive.

When Perfecseal (Philadelphia) adopted the Japanese management philosophy kaizen, or continuous improvement, in 1994, the company saw dramatic results. With the help of TBM Consulting Group (Durham, NC), Perfecseal set up a week-long kaizen event. The long-term rewards of kaizen included improvements in Perfecseal's productivity. "Our 49-day lead time dropped to 12 days," says John Martis, operations vice president. "Our on-time and complete external shipments were about 38%; now they're 95%. We had a 50% improvement in productivity measured in sales per team per day, and a 50% reduction in setup time."

In addition, "employee response was very favorable," Martis says. "People who have been involved in kaizen events not only voice their opinions but actually have a hand in making changes. If it is a week-long event, at the end of the week they can say, 'We had this idea and we got it done.'"

In 1996 at Acuson (Mountain View, CA), inventory accuracy was fluctuating between 85 and 95% despite a cycle-counting system. A kaizen team assigned to the problem in mid-1997 discovered that the problem was not with the employees doing the counting but with the outdated and poorly documented procedures for tracking inventory. The kaizen team rewrote the procedures in an easy-to-understand format. By October 1997, inventory accuracy reached 99%.

"That's an example of a problem in which the real root cause would never have been identified without talking to the people who actually do the counting and the inventory transactions," Pat McMahon, continuous improvement manager for Acuson, says. "The kaizen team felt great because, for the first time, they were given credit for knowing something about the process. I think they felt complimented that management gave them such a vote of confidence."

Companies across the United States are using kaizen to reduce manufacturing and delivery time and increase employee satisfaction.


"Kaizen is a process for improving the elements of the manufacturing system," says Jeff Madsen, director of continuous quality improvement at Johnson & Johnson Medical­Vascular Access (Southington, CT). "During kaizen, employees look at how you move material, how many people you use, what the net output of a system is, how much inventory you have, how you schedule, how you maintain and attain equipment reliability--all the elements that go together to make up the total production system of turning materials into finished products."

The central concept of kaizen, which was popularized in the United States by Toyota in the 1980s, is to give employees the power to solve problems and the resources and opportunities they need to do so, without spending a lot of time in meetings getting approvals. Kaizen emphasizes action. Teams don't sit in rooms thinking about problems or designing plans; they are out on the floor trying new techniques until they find pragmatic ways to improve performance. A team's time frame for establishing change can be as little as two days or as long as a week. Sometimes teams are given a longer period--usually 30 days--for large-scale projects.


Although kaizen itself is a system of rapid change, kaizen training can take several days. Tom Moran, director of business development for TBM Consulting Group, describes a first-time kaizen session as a "five-day, one-night blitz." The first day is devoted to team training. The second day employees gather data about a problem and brainstorm solutions (the second night may be spent physically changing the work environment if it seems necessary after the brainstorming session). On the third and fourth days, employees test the solution, make adjustments, and document each change as it is made. On the fifth day, the kaizen team presents its solution.

As a company becomes more familiar with the kaizen process, training time can be reduced. "When we first started, we probably spent a day in training before we let our teams begin work," says Madsen. "Now we spend about half a day."

Kaizen training generally consists of three phases. The first phase stresses the need to improve operations to remain competitive. "In every kaizen, there's a concrete result: eliminating steps in the process, eliminating unnecessary work, or reducing the staffing level," says Madsen. "The solution might involve using less manufacturing floor space for your equipment and people. There are many, many small ways in which you reduce waste or become more effective as a result of a kaizen team's work."

The second phase of the training process addresses kaizen philosophy and methodology, showing how they fit into a plant's production cycle or processes. "We gather data on the current situation through time observation, counting inventory, measuring square footage of the floor space, and creating what we call a spaghetti diagram, which follows the steps of the process all over the factory and sometimes outside," says Moran. "Then we brainstorm, maybe come up with a new layout for the equipment or process or with a method to reduce the inventory that allows flow to continue but reduces the amount of inventory that's in process." Kaizen treats any point in the manufacturing process where goals are not being met or there is room for improvement as a potential problem to be solved.

The third phase of kaizen teaches teams analytical data collection and problem-solving techniques, including training in working as a team, creating agendas, keeping minutes, handling action items, and focusing on the team mission. Teams are taught skills such as brainstorming; making checklists, diagrams, and surveys; and creating histograms, Pareto charts, run charts, and statistical process control charts.


Although building teams and teaching them problem-solving skills is important to kaizen, getting input from every employee is what makes kaizen work. Kaizen philosophy asserts that every employee, regardless of education or experience, has valuable suggestions to contribute. For example, new employees are frequently most aware of processes that are difficult, confusing, or poorly documented. Diverse life experiences can also shed new light on a problem. Respecting every employee's potential contribution to the improvement process is kaizen's greatest strength, says McMahon. As an example, he points to Silicon Valley's large immigrant population. "Some of those people have gone through life experiences that I hope never to encounter, and they know problem-solving. They have all kinds of clever and innovative ways of dealing with difficulties."

Customer comments about products or services that need improvement are another place to start looking for areas to improve. This also is a good time to look outside the medical device industry for process improvement ideas and skills. Often, whole industries develop bad practices because they compare themselves only to each other. Many companies find that they learn the most not from studying their competitors but from seeing how companies outside their industry do things. For example, John Martis says Perfecseal benchmarked itself against Prince Corp. (Holland, MI), an automotive interior manufacturing facility, and Johnson Controls (South Bend, IN), a manufacturer of thermostat controllers. Pat MacMahon notes that Acuson has learned its statistical processes from National Semiconductor (Santa Clara, CA) and survey techniques from The Gallup Organization (Princeton, NJ).


Like any process, kaizen has its drawbacks, primarily caused by the speed of implementation and the top-down corporate effort and commitment needed for this management technique.

Keeping up with new procedures can be difficult when changes are made so quickly. "We are an ISO-certified facility," says Martis, "so we have to make sure that our standard operating procedures accurately reflect what we're doing. You have to be certain that you follow up on the paperwork side of kaizen." In addition, he notes, if too many kaizen problem-solving projects are put on a 30-day schedule instead of completed during a short-term kaizen event, they can become difficult to manage. "As we went through the kaizen process, we learned to focus on getting things done during events and not letting a lot of things languish afterward."

Effort, attention, and managerial support are necessary for kaizen to work. "Kaizen is probably more difficult than it appears," Madsen says. "People who are beginning to do these things for the first time may underestimate the amount of effort it takes." For instance, team formation and training take time, which can temporarily disrupt the production process. Productivity may also take a dip while kaizen-driven changes are being made. Short-term slowing may discourage a company from pursuing longer-term goals.

Kaizen also can fail if it is given only lip service, says Sheila Kessler of Competitive Edge (Fountain Valley, CA), a consulting firm whose clients have included Beckman Instruments, Inc. (Fullerton, CA) and Johnson & Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ). The company must support a culture open to employee-driven, rather than manager-driven, change. "In our culture, our executives and our managers are supposed to know the answers, but with kaizen our executives and our managers need to know the right questions," Kessler says.


When it works, kaizen can be beneficial to the company and rewarding for employees. More than a simple series of process improvement steps, kaizen affects the entire company culture: it encourages open communication, continual change, teamwork, and taking personal responsibility for the day-to-day procedures one uses on the job.

By striving to improve all elements of the production system, medical device companies can streamline and improve their manufacturing processes. In turn, employees can apply firsthand experience to improve their working conditions and, as members of kaizen teams, become active agents of change within their company.

Kim Campbell Thornton is a writer based in Lake Forest, CA.

Illustration by Ken Coffelt

Copyright ©1998 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry
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