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Mark Graban

Mark Graban: No time for improvement? Then find time

By Mark Graban, - Last updated: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

The Lean Edge: How do you make time for improvements?

As CEO of my company I have a grasp of lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I’m CEO, I find it difficult to ask my people to make time for improvement work. They’re already completely busy doing their regular work. Moreover, this company is in the outdoor sports industry, and many people join these companies because they want time to climb, backpack, canoe, etc., and I’m reluctant to ask them to work more hours and sacrifice time for these activities. Any advice?”

It’s a very common complaint to say “We don’t have for improvement.” I forget the book, but I read something very insightful a few years back that said when we say “I don’t have time for ______” (such as exercise), what we’re really saying is, “I choose not to make time for _______” and we have to own that choice and not be victims.

We only have 24 hours in a day. We each generally choose to work only X hours. Of those X hours, we’d hopefully be able to spend some time on continuous improvement or Kaizen, otherwise we are a rat who never gets off that spinning wheel. We can let “We don’t have time” be an excuse or we can pose that as a problem to solve. How can we make time? If it’s important, we’ll find a way to make time.

When I took a group of medical students and healthcare administration students to the Toyota plant in San Antonio recently, they heard a lot about Kaizen, starting in the visitor center where it’s one of the first words you see on the wall. At the end of the tour, one of the healthcare guests asked, “How do you make time for improvement? People seemed pretty busy building trucks.”

The tour guide, who until recently had worked as a production associate in the paint shop, said, “If we have an idea and need time to work on it, we’ll talk to management and they might agree to schedule some overtime for it.” I’m sure they would also take good advantage of any extended line stop situations to work on Kaizen instead of just standing around waiting.

As the person who asked the question for this series of posts said, staying late might not be an appealing option in many cases. This is true in healthcare, where nursing shifts might already be 12 hours long. They don’t want to stay later. They are exhausted. The human factors impact and risks created by 12-hour shifts is a discussion for another future question. People in healthcare rarely get accused of milking overtime or trying to stay late just to make money.

So if we don’t want to work overtime, how do we take advantage of slow times during the day? In healthcare, it’s almost the new conventional wisdom that we “have to send nurses home early” when the patient census is low. No, you don’t have to, it’s a choice. Own that choice. Or, you could choose to let nurses stay and work on continuous improvement. We might not have time every single day for Kaizen, but if we look for it, it’s actually often there. It’s often hidden by individuals doing busy work because they fear that management will send them home if they don’t look busy. We can do better.

Some hospitals I’ve worked with very intentionally and specifically create time for Kaizen work. It might be an hour or two here and there or it might be an entire shift that’s scheduled for nothing but Kaizen (and, yes, they still hit their productivity goals).

Whether it’s overtime or at the end of a slow low-volume shift, time spent on effective Kaizen activities should be viewed as an investment in future quality and future productivity. If you can spend an hour working on something that saves 10 minutes a day for each nurse, that’s a pretty obvious and quick “return” on that time. You could make that investment (which also has the benefit of helping develop your people and their problem solving skills) or you could be cheap and send people home early to help today’s productivity. That might be penny wise and pound foolish.

Managers often say they don’t have time to work on improvement. Let’s pose that as a problem statement. How can you free up time? Can you cancel that one weekly meeting that takes up two hours for no apparent purpose? Can you find ways to reduce unnecessary email traffic so managers can get to the gemba to help people with Kaizen?

There are many things we can do to make time for Kaizen. We first have to want to do so and then experiment with ways to take advantage of downtime or create time in our busy days.

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