Creating Social Value Blog / Corporate Social Relevance

Lean for Social Innovation: Kaizen Applied

By Benjamin Simon, 2014 Babson Undergraduate and a Research Analyst at RetailNet. This post is the fourth in a series that explores how Toyota Production System (TPS) principles were applied at the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) to support social innovation. Posts include the opinions of thought leaders and Babson student perspectives.

I’m pretty sure we learned in one afternoon more than what some students learn in an entire class. It was a March afternoon and we were at the point in our project where we were implementing our ideas for the Greater Boston Food Bank. On this day we were in the marketplace with the goal of creating a layout that would make the process safer, increase the total pallet capacity, and increase the rate of flow. People wise, we had every resource we could ever need; a MBA student group leader with the patience to manage a group of impatient undergrads, a team of GBFB employees that knew much more than we did about the marketplace, and a Toyota advisor that could probably write the next chapter in our TPS textbook.

We arrived on site, took about 10 minute to define our goals, and got to work. Not work as in creating an excel sheet or drawing out designs, work as in getting splinters from moving pallets with our hands while yelling out ideas over the sharp beeping of forklifts reverse alarm. We started moving the pallets while testing pathways with u-boat carts. After only 15 minutes we had a layout that was significantly safer than the original, a success right? It was an improvement, we still had room to increase the flow and capacity so our design was far from complete. Instead of trying a second design we took what we already had and adjusted it to incorporate more pallets. We now had an enormously improved capacity, but the flow was worse than the original design. At this point we had been there for a few hours and I was thinking, “Hey, better is better right? Lets lay some tape down and work on some new designs tomorrow”. My two teammates were equally frustrated, but our group leader Nicole encouraged us to think in different ways than we initially had. At the same time, the Toyota advisor, Wade, was smiling, he knew that the process was really close to where we wanted it to be even though it seemed like we were far from finished. So we worked at it for about an hour more and we had it, a layout that was safer, with more pallets, and a path that improved the average checkout time. Through this method we did in a few hours a part of our project that we budgeted two weeks for.

Wade then went over the TPS term “Kaizen”, a word defined by our textbook that came to life through our experience. Kaizen is the belief that every process can be improved, it embraces imperfection as opportunity and encourages trial and error. When we finished our project in May we left GBFB with a marketplace that was improved, but more importantly we gave them a canvas to add to. I really like the idea of kaizen and I use it in my everyday life, it makes you realize that nothing is perfect, and thus, everything has the potential to be even better. You could study 1,000 flashcards with kaizen definitions and examples and you still wouldn’t fully understand the concept. As much as this day’s activity illustrated kaizen for me it brought to light the power of learning by doing.