Kaizen Thinking: Yes, Work Can Be Fun

By on August 29, 2013
Kaizen Thinking: Yes, Work Can Be Fun

About a year ago, an employee of one of my clients told me about a shift in thinking that he had undergone. He said for many years his thinking while he was at work went something like this.

I get paid for working from 8:30 – 5:00 pm. While I’m at work I’ll do what I’m told to do and that’s it. I won’t worry about whether or not it would be possible to reduce our defect rate resulting in my having to spend a lot of time fixing mistakes that had been made. Why do it? I get paid the same if I simply go through the motions.

He continued, telling me that one morning he heard some employees working in his area talking about a production problem they were having. As he listened to them, he realized that he knew how to solve the problem. And at that moment, for a reason he no longer remembered, he turned to them and said, “I know how to take care of this problem.” They listened. His solution worked. And then something almost magical happened.

He experienced joy. And he decided he liked the feeling. He decided he’d try to do it again, to think about ways to solve problems, about ways to use his creativity and intelligence to improve the way he and others in his area did their work. And it was fun.

Then came a profound change in his outlook toward work. He decided that life was way too short to spend it like a robot for over eight hours a day, going through the motions and not using his intelligence, his creativity, his knowledge. Although Dan didn’t realize it, what he was doing was engaging in a mode of thinking called “Kaizen thinking,” which involves the individual in a highly focused, continuing search for ways to drive waste out of work processes. The result? Work processes flow much more smoothly and contain very little waste. And work becomes fun.

For many employees, to be continuously focused on ways to improve work processes through the elimination of waste is simply not part of the way they operate in the work place. But they can change, just as Dan changed. And when Kaizen thinking takes root in a workforce and gradually spreads throughout the organization’s workforce it becomes a major force driving dramatic increases in an organization’s productivity and profitability. Bringing about this shift in the way employees think is one of the primary goals of Lean manufacturing and is also the major force behind the power of Lean.

In addition, research conducted at the University of Chicago has suggested that driving the types of work process improvements that Lean focuses on…smooth work flow with as little waste as possible embedded in the work flow…actually makes workers happier. This research, conducted by Polish-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, led to the following findings, as cited in Jim Womack’s classic, Lean Thinking, “the types of activities that make people feel best involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of challenge—the perception that one’s skills are adequate, but just adequate, to cope with the task at hand.” Womack continues, “When people find themselves in these conditions they lose their self-consciousness and sense of time. They report that the task itself becomes the end rather than a means to something more satisfying, like money or prestige.”

Losing a sense of the passage of time and recognizing that doing exceptionally good work in completing a task was the end purpose of his work and not simply a means to something else is exactly what Dan experienced as he began the practice of Kaizen thinking.

Our clients have helped us realize the tremendous importance of developing resources that will drive Kaizen thinking in their organizations. Responding to this need, we’ve developed a series of 11 one-hour discussions focused on the systematic development of Kaizen thinking.

If you’d like to discuss ways in which this resource could be put to work in your organization, I’d much appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.