Help Make Your Business “Lean” with These Five Steps
Kaizen process helps identify steps to streamline tree care operations
Large or small, the most successful businesses share a common trait: They’re always looking for ways to improve how they operate. It could be a small adjustment to trim a few minutes off of a specific task or an overhaul of business procedures to create major new efficiency or productivity. The idea of continuous improvement is important in building and evolving any business.
Though it’s an abstract philosophy taken alone, kaizen is just that: a disciplined, systematic approach to continuously improve a business through well-organized strategies and tactics. From Japanese, kaizen translates to “change for better” and was coined as a business practice in the 1950s by Toyota as a way to guide manufacturing improvements.
Kaizen is essentially an audit of your practices and processes, from accounting and business planning to organizing tools and equipment to laying out machinery on a jobsite. With any kaizen event, the main goal is to make your business “lean,” or more efficient by optimizing practices and streamlining operations. The tree care industry is one in which kaizen principles can be applied to concepts such as business management and daily on-the-job operations.
A disciplined approach
Once you’ve taken a deep dive into your business and can identify ways to improve overall organization and efficiency, it’s important to take steps to shore up any shortcomings. It’s also key to define how changes and improvements can be made to yield new productivity or efficiency. These processes can provide a new level of “lean” operation to maximize the strengths each member brings to a business.
“The philosophy is about instilling discipline into your processes,” according to Vermeer Senior Manufacturing Engineering Manager Louis Hartke. “It hits home when you start using it to shape decision-making. Once you can think in terms of kaizen, you will question things you’ve taken for granted every day, then you start making improvements over time. You begin to see how much of a difference it makes.”
The “Five Ss” of kaizen
Integrating kaizen into your business starts by adhering to the discipline of “5S,” Hartke said. It’s a framework that can guide your devotion to the philosophy in ways that bring real, tangible results, as it pertains to the tools and equipment you use as well as the image of your business overall.
- Sort. This step is all about identifying what’s necessary for your business and what’s not. For a tree care business, this often means having the right tools for the job, but just as importantly, not having tools and equipment that you don’t need. “Sort through everything,” Hartke said. “Do you have anything that’s broken? Keep what you need and get rid of what you don’t need.”
- Set. In this step, envision a pegboard on which you hang tools and equipment. Good organization means you’re not spending time finding the tools you need to do your job. “It’s all about putting everything in its set. Think about that tool board. Everything is in its place, and there’s a place for everything,” Hartke said. “That way, you know you will have the right tools for the job every day.”
- Shine. The “spring-cleaning” step. Once you’ve sorted and set your equipment, it’s time for a deep clean. But this step pertains to more than just equipment. It’s also about “shining” your brand. “We’re really setting an expectation in this step. Every business wants to portray a certain image to their customers,” Hartke said. “Let’s set an expectation for ‘shine’ and follow through by meeting or exceeding that expectation both on your jobsite and with your overall business image.”
- Standardize. Optimizing processes across your business can help you become “lean.” That may mean standard business practices for each tree care job or common procedures across multiple crews. “It’s really powerful when you have multiple crews. If everyone has the same equipment and the same checklist, they can make sure everything is in its place,” Hartke said. “If you have a crew member who’s ill or can’t work, someone from another crew can step in and there’s no learning curve.”
- Sustain. Where the discipline of kaizen comes in. Not every kaizen practice implemented into a business may be noticeable in the short term. But, by working toward long-term improvements, the benefits of “lean” operations are much more readily seen and measured. “If you can reduce travel time by 10 miles (conversion) a day one time, that’s not a big deal. If I’m doing it 250 times a year, that’s 2,500 miles (conversion). That’s a lot of savings on gas and oil changes,” Hartke said. If you do those kinds of things sometimes, that’s one thing, but if you can sustain a philosophy of efficient operations over a long period of time, it can make the impact that much bigger to your business.
Applying kaizen principles to a tree care jobsite takes many forms, but one thing is consistent: The time in which it happens is important to its success.
“In order to sustain change, it has to happen at a pace everyone in the business can handle. Be realistic about how much time you’re going to devote to kaizen every day. It may just be 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night,” Hartke said. “What’s important is you’re going to hold yourself and others accountable. You may be shocked at how much you can accomplish in 10 minutes.”
Planning the day to minimize travel time between jobsites and arranging equipment can help each worker be well-organized. Knowing your crew has the necessary tools at their disposal can help eliminate waste and build the kind of incremental improvements that show considerable results in the long run.
Trying things like:
- Optimizing your route when going to multiple jobsites in a day can reduce travel time and save on fuel.
- Mapping out the jobsite, including where the tools and equipment should be set up can reduce setup time.
- Planning for equipment needs to avoid working around unnecessary pieces on the job can help your crew stay efficient.
Hartke said, “When you start thinking about the job in terms of waste and the small incremental improvements you can make during the day, you realize you may be able to trim enough time from each job to add one more job? per day, per crew. It’s not about hitting a home run, but by taking advantage of small, discipline-based opportunities, you can make a real difference.”
This component sometimes makes it difficult for tree care business owners to justify the attention to work processes and practices required to make a positive difference. Change can be made in small doses but adds up over time. It’s important when implementing a kaizen strategy to have realistic expectations for the positive differences you can make, both in terms of internal processes as well as the value you offer your customers.
“You don’t need to save three days at a time. Save 15 minutes on each of five jobs per day, and suddenly you can do one more job. Think about that over a week or a month.” Hartke said. “Time is a difficult thing to think about in terms of waste sometimes, but the really progressive companies are starting to think about it in these terms. Ask yourself if you’re doing things with your time that your customer values.”
Breaking old habits
Applying kaizen principles to your tree care business is intimidating. Change can be overwhelming, especially in business, and it’s important to identify your tolerance for change before developing strategies to become a “leaner” tree care operation.
Being realistic about the risks and benefits of the changes you want to make can help you know what you’re comfortable tackling in the next year, five years and into the future. We’re all creatures of habit. We always start out doing something for a good reason, but the challenge is knowing whether you need to continue doing something if the progress doesn’t seem instant or tangible. Hartke leaves us with this, “You may have started sharpening your chainsaw blade every morning 10 years ago, but blade technology has changed, and you may only have to sharpen that blade every three days now. Kaizen is all about breaking out of routines and asking whether what you’ve been doing over time still makes sense today.”
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