Monday, November 26, 2007

Kaizen: Get the Process Right, and Everything Else Will Work.

At the end of World War II, the economy of Japan was in shambles. The Allies had won the war, but winning the peace looked like a more difficult proposition. Folks remembered what had happened in Germany following the peace of World War I. Germany was penalized. We'd provided no help in rebuilding the economy and let the country stew in its own juices. After all, they were the enemy? Right? Run away inflation, Hitler, and scapegoating were the result. No one wanted a repeat, but no one understood how to rebuild a country either. What did we do? We looked for industrial experts. Japan's (and modern Germany's) position as world powers and economic power houses was the result.

At the conclusion of WWII, the current vogue in industrial management was time and motion study. During the war, specialists in the field had had a lot of practice, and the success of US industry in shifting toward producing the stuff of war was proof that time and motion study combined with the factory model of industrial production was a very, very powerful combination. Specialists in the field took the complex and seemingly simple and identified the steps involved. They then identified what steps had to be done and what was "wasted" motion. Through each of these understandings, they improved processes.

The QWERTY keyboard is a good example of how the time and motion study combine to make the human/machine interface more effective. The QWERTY keyboard was set up using early ides about time and motion studies. Wikipedia describes the history as:

The QWERTY keyboard layout was devised and created in the 1860s by the creator of the first modern typewriter, Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor who lived in Milwaukee. Originally, the characters on the typewriters he invented were arranged alphabetically, set on the end of a metal bar which struck the paper when its key was pressed. However, once an operator had learned to type at speed, the bars attached to letters that lay close together on the keyboard became entangled with one another, forcing the typist to manually unstick the typebars, and also frequently blotting the document.[1] A business associate of Sholes, James Densmore, suggested splitting up keys for letters commonly used together to speed up typing by preventing common pairs of typebars from striking the platen at the same time and sticking together.

The keyboard most of you use to interact with the computer was the result. The layout of the keys is designed to solve a problem in a human/mechanical interface--a problem which disappeared long ago. We continue to use the QWERTY layout, because learning to type using it requires a fairly heavy investment in time and energy, and it's the way things have been done for 150 years. Note there are better, more effectual ways to design a keyboard to ease the job of a typist getting English text into a computer, but we still use the QWERTY. Why? Answering this question goes a long way toward your developing a more complex idea of how processes work in human communities, so I'm going to take a moment to provide an answer before returning to the story of time and motion study, industrial management, Kaizen, and your becoming a better writer.

The short answer to why we continue to use the QWERTY keyboard is that it's the way most folks have learned to type. It took a long time for those of us who touch type to gain the skill. It works pretty well, that is, I can type faster than I can think and compose prose. To convince me to change over to a new method of text entry, you have to make the case (persuade me) the new method is worth the trouble of learning it. You have to make the case the new method will make my life sufficiently easier to warrant the investment in time and energy to make the change, you have to justify the capital investment needed to put new keyboards on most desks and retrain the workforce, and you have to overcome the "it's tradition" factor. The "it's tradition" factor is one reason that substantial changes in social practice happen along generational lines, that is, the young tend to have less invested in having learned a particular method of doing something, so they are less likely to resist a new, "better" method on the grounds the work doesn't have sufficient payoff. The young also have the task of establishing an identity different from their parents' and forming social communities outside of the family. The rebellion involved in adopting a new method of doing something, hence, has more appeal to the young. Catastrophe also sets up the conditions through which change will be accepted.

Loosing the war was one such catastrophe for Japan, so while they didn't exactly welcome Western experts into each factory, they saw the necessity of adopting new methods of industrial production. However, the problem involved in getting the Japanese to adopt the new methods of more effective factory labor design involved more than simply making the case that it worked, there was also a less obvious cultural conflict inherent in time and motion, process based industrial management. Those of us in the West had had centuries to adapt our society to the demands of the industrial revolution and, more importantly, to adapt industry and technology to the demands of society. One such compromise had to do with the place of the worker in a western factory.

In western factories, an individual does the same task repeatedly. They move one piece of a widget to another line. They attach one piece of the widget, and the next person down the line attaches the next. Such isolated sub-steps in a process work perfectly with time and motion study. Think about it. If you can identify a way for the individual to use less motion and effort to attach their piece of a widget, you can speed up the whole line. In a similar way, you can identify choke points, that is, points in the process where a single step or group of steps slows down overall production. Once identified, you can apply the know how of mechanical design to automate the task, break it down into more steps, or otherwise make it more effective, and you can make the whole line or the whole process more efficient.

In western culture, we've gotten used to "doing our job," that is, doing our bit of an overall project or doing our job on the line. The idea of single craftspersons doing all the steps involved in producing a product is the exception, not the rule. In the 1940s, the Japanese, however, were just coming out of feudal, crafts based society. Their workers were used to being involved in understanding products as wholes and not parts. They were also used to thinking of work as an end rather than a means. For example, think of Zen meditation practices built around specific kinds of work, like sweeping. Finally, they were used to thinking of communities and not individuals as the center of social and individual action. The upshot was that they adapted process based, time and motion study to the norms of their society. Kaizen was the result.

The notion of "low hanging fruit" is a classic metaphor from the industrial management philosophy of Kaizen. Kiazen also provides some useful language when teaching process, teaching process theory, running a writing program, or teaching folks to become better writers. The basic tenets are:
1) Use existing processes, tools, and infrastructure to "pick the lowest hanging fruit." [NB: Little if any additional investments in capital intensive remachining and work force training are needed.]
2) Use groups made up of management and workers to examine goals, products and existing processes. [NB Tap into the knowledge and skills set of those who do the work and those who have a larger picture, all the while helping to build a better community.]
3) Identify *small* changes in process which might provide a more efficient process or better product.
4) Use the group to identify which changes in process will be made.
5) Implement change(s).
6) Use the group to evaluate changes.
7) If the changes are deemed effective, maintain changes as part of a new process.
8) Rinse and repeat.
9) Pick higher fruits as the changes in process accumulate.
Kaizen is a merging of western process theory and Japanese belief about how work and the worker fit into community and life. Kaizen is accredited for the success and rebirth of the Japanese economy following WWII. They started with what they had--picking the lowest fruit--and used the power of community to create processes governed by the notion one makes small changes over time, changes accumulate, and better process makes better process.

Here's how all this fits into a writing class and your becoming a better writer. Think of yourself as a writer in the process of becoming. You want to use your existing skill and knowledge set about writing, how to write, and how to do things with words to produce texts which accomplish your ends. You pick the lowest hanging fruits, but you also know that your current process and knowledge set isn't the most effective. To borrow a metaphor from the QWERTY keyboard, your writing process does well enough, but it could be more effective at doing its job.

The Kaizen of the writing process begins here. You make a commitment to improving the processes, tricks, and techniques you use to produce effective texts. You articulate your process, and you then articulate a possible improvement in your process. You make the changes necessary to implement this one improvement, and you then evaluate the change. If the change you've made makes your writing more effective, both in terms of it accomplishing your purposes for writing and/or in making the job of writing easier, then you keep the change as part of your process.

You are already involved in this process. You are taking an inventory of yourself as a writer (that is, responding to the WPA Outcomes and updating your understanding as new concepts, like Kaizen writing are introduced). This week, you'll be writing a paper describing a process you use in creating a product tied to the work you're already doing or hope to do. This paper is to get you used to the notion that process is one key to improvement, and you begin the process of change by getting a handle on the processes you already use.

Quite literally, you are discovering and beginning the Kaizen (the process of small continuous improvement) of your own writing and learning how to apply Kaizen to other aspects of your professional and personal life. Once you get your head around the fact that this class is about process and not product, that is, discovery of the process involved in creating a text and making your process more effective, then you're a long way toward getting the content of the course.

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