The service economy, kaizen, bear shaving and standards

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Photo by Six Million Dollar Dan

I was studying for an exam in operations management today. I don’t know if this is commonplace for courses on this subject, but it sure feels like we concentrated a lot on manufacturing ideas. As most western states are becoming more service dependent, and as my own experience lies in more service like organizations, I am constantly trying to think about how to apply concepts from the manufacturing world to service world.

One of the most interesting concepts is we discussed is kaizen, the Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all aspects of life. In the business sense, kaizen means continuous improvement of all functions of a business, from manufacturing to management and from the CEO to the assembly line workers. This concept is off course very transferable to service as it is to life. I actually think that without knowing the concept I wrote about something similar in my e-book. But, the fact that it is easy transferable, does not mean it is practiced. Hence, bear shaving.

One important part of kaizen is the concept of standardization. Because kaizen is about improvement, a lot of effort is dedicated into standardizing the improvement to keep it in place.  Because an improvement by itself will not contribute to kaizen unless in the end it can be maintained when the people directly involved leave. Moreover what can be continually improved if there are no strong standards for how things are carried out? Without standardised work kaizen becomes something practiced by the individual employee and not by the company as a whole.

And that got me thinking. I remember when I was a course leader in the Israeli Air-force. After every course we de-briefed the course and came up with all kinds of recommendations for improvement. The problem was we had trouble making sure that the instructors who will come after us will learn from our mistakes and implement our recommendations. Because some of the lessons we learned were about day to day activities, course planning or just small thoughts about how to make the course more effective. We wrote in a manual, but, if the people who come after us don’t read the manual, guess what happens. Because I later served as a reserve duty soldier in the same place, I saw in my own eyes, how lessons disappear and every generation of instructors have to learn things from the beginning or come up with ideas, that we already came up with five, six or seven years before.

In a service environment, the reliance on people is even greater than in a manufacturing environment. But creating standards for service is harder. However, harder does not mean impossible. It just means that you have to be more creative about the ways you change the process. In service environment it might even be a good idea to remind people about things they already know on a regular basis. And today, in contrast to my situation in the Israel Air-force more than ten years ago, you have technology to help you. After all, we do leave in a period of “combinatorial innovation“.

So, let’s try an invent ways to standardize service kaizen.

Elad

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