Applying Lean and Kaizen at Home: Continuous Improvement

For decades, organizations have used different methodologies for process improvement in order to reduce costs and to enhance customer satisfaction. If these methodologies can be used across different business areas and industries, they can most certainly be applied for private purposes as well.

Imagine the processes of an office: filling out Excel sheets, updating customer data into the IT system, sending invoices, entering debits and credits in the accounting system. We have similar routines in our daily lives. We have breakfast, cook dinner, vacuum the house, shop for groceries, do laundry – there is a long list of tasks to keep the daily routines running. I wonder how many people have ever thought, or written on a piece of paper, what these tasks include and what possibilities there are to make them work more efficiently.

Or are some of the tasks only routines we once started and thought they are mandatory in some way, but in fact we could get rid of the whole task and nothing would happen? How often do we revise our routines? How can we get out-of-the-box type of ideas when trying to improve what we do?

What is Lean?

The thesis topic for my M.Sc. Technology studies is about Lean in a healthcare environment. In the research articles I have read there is much discussion about whether or not Lean can be used in other industries than the manufacturing business, and if is it useful in public services, provided by the government. Lean originates from the car manufacturing business of Toyota in Japan.

By reading about Lean’s history it becomes evident that it is all about trying out new ways of solving problems (hands-on method, not sitting in an office in front of a computer), and by trial and error finding out the best and most efficient ways to work. The key thing is that it must be done on a continuous basis. If a problem appears somewhere it should not be corrected tomorrow or next week. The idea is to have an error-free production and whenever a problem appears it is fixed immediately and not let go forward to the next process because then most likely nobody will fix the issue and the problems keep appearing and the customers will get defect products, which they will make a complaint about and the company will get a bad reputation.  In addition, it is costly to fix the problems afterwards.

The method also emphasizes the importance of doing only things that matter, at the right time and the right place, being organized and persistent, and listening to other people’s opinions, i.e. seeing things from different perspectives. If the work environment is clean and organized and the work is done as the process description says, the potential issues, risks and problems are easier to find.

The fundamental idea behind Lean is to produce exactly what the customer wants, at the lowest possible price, and producing no waste. So in short, do things that create value and get rid of waste! Sounds easy, but when you try to apply this philosophy in a new environment the definitions of “value-creating” and “waste” are not always clear.

Lean Tools

There are different Lean tools that can be helpful when defining what to do and what to avoid. Value stream analysis is a map that documents the parts of a process. By analyzing this step-by-step the parts of the stream that bring value and the parts that should be considered as waste can be identified. Much emphasis is put on PDCA or Deming’s circle, which consists of Plan, Do, Check and Act. This means that whenever problems are solved and changes are made, the first step is to plan what needs to be changed. Then the plan is carried out, usually first as a small-scale project, to see if it’s working as planned. The third step, check, is where the outcome is analyzed and there is a discussion about what has been learned about the case. The last step is to act, which means to decide if the way that was tested will be the way of working from now on, or does it need some kind of modifications or testing in another environment before it can be applied. If needed, the PDCA then starts from the beginning again.

In my opinion this is a good reminder: whatever you want to be good at or when you find a situation that needs improvement, action needs to be taken in order to make changes, but don’t expect miracles to happen overnight. Testing, trial & error, and patience are needed.

Muda is the Japanese word for waste. It is an activity that creates no value. For example if you work in an office and your desk is a mess and every time you need to find a document it takes you fifteen minutes to find it. The time that you use for finding the document is muda, waste, not a value-creating activity. If you work as a nurse in a hospital and need to measure the blood pressure of the patients, but the device is stored far away from the patients and you as a nurse must walk to the place where it is stored many times every day, this extra walking is considered as waste, because it is inefficient and doesn’t create any value for the patient. The solution is to analyze which the best place, near the patient, where the device can be stored.

JIT, or Just-In-Time, means that only the products that are needed at this particular time are ordered, stored or bought. It is very costly to have items stored in warehouses if they can be quickly delivered whenever they are needed. There is also a risk that there are changes on the market and the stuff that is stored in the warehouse cannot be used or sold.

5S is an abbreviation of Seiri (Sort), Seiton (Straighten, Set), Seisto (Shine, Sweep), Seiketsu (Standardize) and Shitsuke (Sustain). What this means is that take the stuff that you have at your desk at work, items in a warehouse or toys in the child’s room and start doing the 5S’s to clean the place and keep it organized. First you sort what you need and put them orderly to the place where they belong. Then wash, scrub, mop, rinse, polish or whatever needs to be done for the place to look clean. The purpose of standardization is that everyone who takes these items knows where to put them back or what to do with them. Sustaining means that this is not a one-time event that is done on the day someone came up with it, but it happens today and every time in the future.

Last but not least, remember Kaizen. The Japanese word Kaizen is usually translated as “continuous improvement”. Any change that eliminates waste and creates value counts, however small that action taken is. Kaizen strives for perfectionism and zero mistakes. Kaizen is part of the daily work. By taking small continuous Kaizen steps processes are improved over time.

How to use Lean and Kaizen at home?

So can you benefit from all this at home and in you private life? Yes, our daily lives consist of processes and they can be improved (and hence money and time can be saved). It’s rewarding to find better and smarter solutions.

Example: How to Clean your House Efficiently Using Lean

Let’s look at the process of cleaning the house. Is cleaning taking too much time? Is it a frustrating activity? Well, cleaning is value-creating as it (for probably most of us) feels more comfortable to live in a clean home than in the middle of a chaos covered with dust. Is it possible to identify steps that can be categorized as “waste” in the cleaning process at home? 5S is useful when decluttering and deciding which items to keep and what kind of storage system is needed for them. Let’s take a look and try to find out the root causes of the problem.

Is cleaning time-consuming because the space being cleaned is simply so huge? Or do you need to move each piece of furniture in order to get the vacuuming properly done? Or is decluttering actually taking more time than the cleaning (vacuuming) itself? Try to tackle one of the problems first. Come up with ideas of how to improve the situation. Can you have a clutter-free home and see if it improves the situation? Can you get rid of some of the furniture, especially those that have a negative effect on the weekly cleaning and are not really mandatory for any function in the house? Make small changes, one by one, and analyze if the change was helpful or not. If it was – good, if not, try something else. Remember to try to find the root causes, i.e. the real issues that are causing the problems, not just the symptoms. Try out different alternatives until you find a method that works! It’s seldom that the solution is found immediately, it takes some trial-and-error to test different methods. It’s as simple as that!

Implementing Lean at Home: Results

Nowadays I spend less than 30 minutes a week on cleaning my home. I accomplished this by having only the necessary pieces of furniture, a decluttered table and counter tops and just four rugs that are easy to vacuum. The furniture are either easy to move when necessary or can easily be vacuumed under. When there’s enough space to move around with the vacuum cleaner, it’s more motivating to get the cleaning done. The advantage of living in a small apartment is that the space to be cleaned is small and less time-consuming. It takes 10-15 minutes to vacuum the apartment, another 10-15 minutes to clean the toilet and 5-10 minutes can be used for any miscellaneous cleaning.

Sohva ja imuri
It’s easy to vacuum under this sofa and there is enough space to move around it with the vacuum cleaner.

Remember to think from different perspectives when applying Kaizen. If your problem is that you don’t know where to put your stuff and you are thinking about your options – is the right decision for you: (a) to buy a new cabinet where you can put your stuff, or (b) to get rid of the stuff and save the money that you planned to spend on a new storage system? Sometimes the optimal solution is not the most obvious one.

When my oven broke my immediate reaction was to buy a new one, just because it seems that an oven is a standard device that is installed in every home, and because everyone seems to have one. But I decided not to buy a new oven and see if I was able to manage without one. Now I haven’t had a functioning oven for over a year and I haven’t really missed it. Once again I was confirmed that habits are steering us more than we think. The oven was creating very little or no value at all. And I must admit that cleaning an oven is something I hate. Got rid of that problem as well! It’s a reminder to ask oneself how much we are surrounded by habits (and how much bad habits are steering us) and social pressure and how much in what we do have anything to do with our real needs and facts.

References and Further Reading:

Brandao de Souza, L. (2009). Trends and approaches in lean healthcare. Leadership in Health Services, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 121-139.

D’Andreamatteo, A., Ianni, L., Lega, F. & Sargiacomo, M. (2015). Lean in healthcare: A comprehensive review. Health Policy, No. 119, pp. 1197-1209.

Drotz, E. & Poksinska, B. (2014). Lean in healthcare from employees’ perspectives. Journal of Health Organization and Management, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 177-195.

Larsson, L. (2008). Lean Administration. Konsten att införa och praktisera Lean i administrativa stödprocesser. Sweden, Malmö: Liber AB. 166 p.

Liker, J.K. (2009). The Toyota Way. Lean för världsklass. Malmö: Liber AB. 374 p.

McIntosch, B., Sheppy, B. & Cohen, I. (2014). Illusion or delusion – Lean management in the health sector. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, Vol. 27, No. 6, pp. 482-492.

Stone, K.B. (2012). Four decades of lean: a systematic literature review. International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 112-132.

Sugimori, Y., Kusunoki, K., Cho, F. & Uchikawa, S. (1977). Toyota production system and Kanban system Materialization of just-in-time and respect-for-human system. The International Journal of Production Research, Vol. 15, No. 6, pp. 553-564.