TWO days ago, a motorcycle rider knocked at the iron-grilled gate of our house to deliver something. The moment I opened the door, from a distance of 5 meters, I saw him using his mobile phone to photograph the item as if it was the first time he saw it. I asked him: "What are you doing?" He replied: "Sir, it's for proof of delivery."

I suggested the best way is to do a close-up photograph with the house number as an added value of proof of delivery. Of course, he was aware that some people don't want to be photographed or their house for security reasons. I know that as well. The rider whose face turned blank as a crumpled Manila paper told me there was no need for it as their delivery route is constantly monitored.

I'm not even sure if he understood my small stuff idea.

Sometime ago, a client tested my "elegant expertise" in solving a small issue in their factory. But before we proceed, let me define "elegant expertise." Well, it's not me but Albert (not his real name), the factory director who coined the term after knowing I'm one of only two Filipinos certified by a group of Toyota alumni as a specialist in the Toyota management system.

Albert claimed losing an average of $125 a month due to the missing toilet bar soaps. That's $1,500 a year. That amount may appear insignificant to some organizations and yet a tightfisted Albert insisted that I solve it. He challenged me straight to the point:

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"So, what's the kaizen low-cost, common-sense approach to this problem?"

I probed for more information. The soaps, with a typical size of 2.5 inches by 4 inches per piece were manufactured by a cooperative owned and operated by the workers' parents and spouses as part of their community relations program.

Some managers suspected that their workers were smuggling out the soaps for their home use and to create an artificial demand. Albert, the kind-hearted factory director, was looking for a win-win solution and didn't want the security guards to frisk the workers when they clock out for home as it was against their "respect for people" strategy.

Value-adding activity

Many people, including self-proclaimed experts, don't know that kaizen and lean thinking is all about low-cost and common-sense solutions. That means we should reject any knee-jerk solution of changing it to liquid soap as it could bring out more complicated problems than one could imagine.

Also, liquid soap production means additional investment for the cooperative which they can't afford. And what would they do with their raw materials and equipment designed for the bar soaps? Albert knows that I'm biased to prioritizing low-cost and common-sense solutions to every problem, big or small. It was an age-old philosophy popularized by Toyota icon Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) who told his junior engineers to "use their brain, not the company's money" in solving problems.

I told Albert to require the cooperative to make bar soaps at one-fifth the size of its original dimension. The mini dimension of the soap would make it less appealing for petty thieves. Also, the expenses of the cooperative could be minimized if the factory donates some excess wood and iron scrap materials for the replacement mold.

He liked the idea. He was amazed at the practicality and simplicity of my solution that he awarded me with a one-year consulting contract that resulted in more than $2 million of savings. Indeed, common-sense is uncommon. But then, how would you teach people to use their common-sense in problem-solving without antagonizing them?

The answer lies in training people to distinguish between value-adding and non-value adding activities. Masaaki Imai, the founder of Kaizen Institute emphasizes the negative implications of muda (waste in Japanese) in business operations. It's either value adding or non-value adding.

Take the case of walking. Is it value-adding or not? Imai cites the case of a maintenance worker walking with some tools inside the factory and calculated he walked a "distance of 400 kilometers" in one year.

The small stuff

Jeffrey Liker, the famous management professor and bestselling author of many Toyota theme books said it best: "Most business processes are 90% waste and only 10% are value-added work." That's why we should constantly focus on improving the process to get the best possible result even if they mean small stuff or are significant to people.

Unfortunately, most organizations don't sweat the small stuff, especially if they're earning a lot of money. They don't want to sweat on minor issues, apparently mindful of the advice of Richard Carlson (1961-2006), who wrote the 1997 book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. However, the context of that book is different from what we know about kaizen and lean thinking.

Carlson's advice is for people to get out of trouble like in a traffic altercation that could bring you to a bigger issue, like a road rage, for instance.

Sweating the small stuff is not something that could be easily understood by people. That's why we continue to ignore them. The founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was right when he talked about minor, unrecognized expenses: "A small leak will sink a great ship."

You'll understand it better when you're working with a small canoe and don't have enough resources.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources and total quality management. Chat with him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or send feedback to [email protected] or via https://reyelbo.consulting.