Kaizen – the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement – is the ultimate objective of Lean Six Sigma. While Kaizen is normally thought of in association with manufacturing processes and how they can continuously improve through initiatives that reduce waste and enhance efficiencies, it also has implications for the people involved in bringing Lean programs to life.

small business successMore than 700 employees of Jabil Inc.’s plant in Shanghai discovered the personal side of Kaizen when the electronic product solutions company, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., launched a major Lean initiative.

Over the 16 months the program was carried out, it wasn’t just the operational improvements that excited people. It was how participation by almost 700 people in nine separate departments – the facility’s first cross-functional initiative – allowed them to undergo their own personal Kaizen event as they expanded their bases of knowledge and skill.

It was a hugely inclusionary endeavor, as the best input on areas ripe for improvement would come from those actually doing the work.  It led to employees involved in all facets of the manufacturing process sharing what they do and how they do it. As a result, there was a widespread learning of new tasks and procedures that, in the process, enhanced the work ethic and environment while fostering a stronger team culture.

The core team members grew professionally by virtue of going through the entire Lean DMAIC process, as well as employing other Lean tools. That alone was a great way for the group to learn and grow in their positions, Frank LuYing, plant industrial engineering manager told Quality Magazine.

For LuYing, skills gained in the “improvement” phase of DMAIC were most helpful, given its role in process design and maintenance and importance to his job. Another team member, a plant inventory controller, also cited the improvement phase along with data analysis as among the Lean tools he found most beneficial. A third pointed to newly acquired skills in brainstorming, which enabled the team to identify the causes behind operational issues.

Among the benefits they gained from learning and applying the lessons learned: An improvement of the information flow while manual work was reduced and a lower incidence of human error.

But it went even deeper than that, according to project leader and planning manager Xu Yu Feng. Learnings from the Lean methodology, he told Quality Magazine, “will make it easier for me and others…to find opportunities for improvement moving forward. I have strengthened my skills in working with many different people to find solutions.”

The Lean initiative gave team members stronger professional qualifications even as it heightened their profile with senior management. One team leader, citing the value of the project management experience he had gained, appreciated how he was able to help employees better understand the importance of Lean and how different functional areas helped everyone meet shared goals.

In addition to the personal growth and the high levels of solidarity, Jabil’s Shanghai employees experienced a sense of pride at being held up as a model for the future as their work is being replicated at other company units – benefiting even more employees.

As one manager put it in a company video on the firm’s Lean Six Sigma successes:  “Jabil, with 190,000 people, 90 plants, 33 countries, 17 or 18 essential languages, has found one universal language that helps connect us all, and that is the language of the Lean program.”

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