Robert Maurer is the author of The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time (see my book review). Lean principles have been applied in disciplines ranging from manufacturing to entrepreneurship, for innovation and quality improvement based on continuous incremental steps. Kaizen can be used not just by managers but every employee in an organisation, thus helping them feel more empowered, alert and inspired.
Maurer is director of behavioural sciences and a faculty member with the UCLA School of Medicine. He has served as a consultant to Walt Disney Studios, Canyon Ranch Health Spa, Habitat for Humanity and BP. Maurer joins us in this interview on entrepreneurial cultures, case studies of kaizen in action and some recent research findings on heath.
YS: How was your book received? What kinds of responses have you been getting?
RM: The book is now available in 14 languages. I frequently get e-mails asking for strategies for maximising creativity, assistance with health challenges, and even relationship issues.
YS: What do you see as typical challenges of growing startups?
RM: The challenges as startups grow are (a) maintaining the culture (b) managing people which may be a skill set the entrepreneur does not have and (c) relying on more and more people to do key tasks.
YS: Which companies do you admire for their use of kaizen approaches, and why?
RM: Zappos looks at each phone contact with a customer as a special opportunity to create a life-long relationship. When interviewing an applicant, they even look at how the applicant treated the Zappos van driver who brought them to and from the airport.
I have also followed how some social media enterprises have succeeded. Twitter and Foursquare were kaizen discoveries, small moments that Jack Dempsey and others paid attention to.
I admire Toyota, in spite of their recent major problems. They embraced kaizen more than any other company. But their problems began when they abandoned kaizen seeking to be the biggest car company in the world and built too many factories too fast without the engineering and supplier support. Toyota abandoned kaizen at that point, only to discover that the price for doing so is too great.
Pixar is another company I admire for their commitment to the creative process and to people.
YS: What are the challenges for companies seeking to implement kaizen in the long term?
RM: Kaizen fails when people lack the patience to implement it. It can take from one to three years for a large organization to implement kaizen at every level of the business. It can fail due to people making a false distinction between kaizen and innovation.
The reality is small steps may lead to breakthrough products and services. The challenge is to train every employee at every level of the business to think in terms of making small improvements every day. Another problem is when a company becomes successful and then abandons kaizen, looking for big products to satisfy big customers and big shareholders.
YS: What have been some recent developments in the field since your book was published?
RM: Two dramatic research discoveries have been made since the book was published:
a. Mayo Clinic studies found it is physically dangerous to sit for six or more hours a day! Sitting for long periods of time is as dangerous as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Standing and/or stretching every hour is the solution.
b. A recent article in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology found people who run regularly but less than an hour a week had many of the same health benefits as people who ran many hours.
So even a little bit of exercise helps – get away from your desk to do regular amounts of physical activity, no matter how small, and your health will improve in a kaizen manner.
YS: How can kaizen help in other domains – such as government and policy making?
RM: Policy makers and government workers usually ignore kaizen in their haste to make big headlines. Programs are conceived and often implemented nation-wide, often with expensive and ineffective results.
It would be far more effective when trying to improve health care or education, for example, to start pilot projects, and even using government employees and their families as part of the pilots, to learn what works and what doesn’t.
YS: What advice do you have for the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
RM: Ask yourself each day, in a calm and caring voice, “What small step could I take today that may improve a process or product?” Then trust that the power of kaizen and the power of the brain will prevail!