I’m occasionally asked, “How did you come up with a crazy idea like making toast in order to demonstrate continuous improvement.” Here is the short version of my answer:
In 1998, my teacher, Hajime Oba, who had been providing assistance to my company for about four years, gave me an assignment to engage in my own Kaizen. “You should do Kaizen too,” he said. He didn't explain why, and I didn’t ask, but I assume it was to get me closer to the floor. With the help of some folks from production, I created a list of improvements to work on and posted a log of what I had done. Some ideas were better than others and some generated a few laughs from employees. Along the way I learned that even small changes can be uncomfortable, but also that small changes are small only in cost of resources not in their effects. I think I had understood this at some level, but direct participation was a good teacher. I was particularly struck at the importance of direct observation.
After six weeks, Mr. Oba paid a return visit. Looking at my posted improvements he said, “This is a good start, but now all of your management team should do kaizen.” This was a tall order since we were a bit early in our TPS learning. The concept of going to the floor, particularly the production floor did not resonate. My team reasoned that if as VP of Manufacturing, I wanted to spend the day on the floor, that was fine with them; but they were not interested to spend their time that way.
Dilemma: If Mr. Oba returned and his request was not heeded, he might not come back. In desperation I proposed to my team that we each observe a small process that could be accomplished in a short time and in a setting that was familiar to each of us: our kitchens. Each person on our management staff agreed to observe the making of toast, and recommend improvements based upon their observations. That was our homework.
Several days later, each of us gave a report of what we’d observed together with recommendations for improvement. I recall that our president provided a respectable rendering of a standardized work combination table to share his observation. I wish I’d saved it. It turns out that this derivative shop floor still created a good learning opportunity for all of us. The importance of direct observation was a take-away for everyone as was the high value of “small changes for the better.”
When I became a consultant in 1999, I remade the Toast Kaizen video to create a simple explanation of waste, kaizen and direct observation. It was a hit for small group participation. After several years of using the video at our customers, Chris Martin, our VP of Sales commented to me one day, “You know, we might be able to sell this thing.” I laughed. But we remade the video once more: a middle aged man making toast for his wife. Who knew? Today the video is available in 18 languages – and I’m the “Toast Guy” (aka, Old Lean Dude.)