How Do You Make Time for Improvement? Here are Nine Takes From Lean Experts


TimeI'm happy to be a participating author on “The Lean Edge” blog/site that's hosted by Michael Ballé author of The Gold Mine and other books.

Their most recent question has many responses and I'll try to help organize them for you here.

Question: As CEO of my company I have a grasp of lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I'm CEO, I find it difficult to ask my people to make time for improvement work. They're already completely busy doing their regular work. Moreover, this company is in the outdoor sports industry, and many people join these companies because they want time to climb, backpack, canoe, etc., and I'm reluctant to ask them to work more hours and sacrifice time for these activities. Any advice?

The responses, in no particular order:

Jon Miller

Part of John's response:

Kaizen does not need to be done on personal time. It is a work activity aimed at making work easier, safer, faster, better and cheaper to do. Unless people use work time to go climbing, backpacking, canoeing, etc. this should not be a problem. If people love working at the company because of the lifestyle it affords, ask them to help keep the doors open by finding ways to reduce accidents, errors, duplication, frustrations, etc. If they do have the luxury of going hiking during work hours, ask them to think while they climb. Exercise is good for the brain.  Read full response.

Read Jon's regular blog.

Karen Martin

Karen writes, in part:

In the end – it's a matter of priorities. As Deming said (I'm paraphrasing), funny how we don't have time to make improvements, but we have plenty of time to perform work inefficiently and keep resolving the same problems over and over. Ultimately, I believe it's a matter of choice, will, and belief in a better tomorrow. Read full response.

On that note, I'll add that Dr. Deming liked to talk about how to ” make toast American style – you burn, I'll scrape.”

Here's Karen's regular blog, too.

Jeff Liker

Jeff's response includes:

I believe the key to making time for improvement is the equivalent of leveling the workload (Heijunka). How can we level the workload of time we spend on improvement? The answer is by smoothing it out and doing a little bit everyday. Read full response.

I really like that concept of a little improvement every day. That's what Joe and I write about in our Healthcare Kaizen books. Kaizen Events (or “Rapid Improvement Events,” etc) are fine, but they are episodic improvement, not continuous improvement.

Mark Graban

I posted a response. A snippet:

We only have 24 hours in a day. We each generally choose to work only X hours. Of those X hours, we'd hopefully be able to spend some time on continuous improvement or Kaizen, otherwise we are a rat who never gets off that spinning wheel. We can let “We don't have time” be an excuse or we can pose that as a problem to solve. How can we make time? If it's important, we'll find a way to make time. Read full response.

Tracey Richardson

Tracey, who worked her way up at Toyota, shares, in part:

Once small successes are experienced and replicated you can begin to see the shift in the culture that becomes more of a pull system for more knowledge than a push. People will actually ask to be part of the initiative when they see the value. Read full response.

As Tracey writes about, when leaders really read, they create an environment that unleashes the creative potential of everybody in the organization. It's often said that “people hate change.” Bah, humbug.

People hate top-down directives that come from leaders who aren't connected with the actual work. People hate being told what to do.

People DO love solving problems that matter to them. I think most people are actually quite enthusiastic about this, as I saw again last week at a major medical center. I'll write about this soon — people WANT to make things better. Leaders need to let them. We don't have to force changes on people.

Here's Tracey's regular blog.

Art Smalley

Art probably wrote the most provocative response to the question, maybe rightfully so:

For starters you state that “As CEO of my company I have a grasp of Lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I am CEO, I find it hard to ask my people to make time for improvement work“. Ok let's start here. We'll for starters I am guessing that you actually don't have much practical experience in Lean. If you did have practical experience and success in Lean then I honestly don't believe you'd be making the initial comment above or the ones that follow…Let me explain. Read full response.

Sammy Obara

Sammy writes:

Time is relative, what they don't have is called priority, and Kaizen is not their priority. People who understand the benefit of Kaizens, make them a priority. They make time to exclusively devote to these activities. Read full response.

Dave Meier

Dave's post includes:

First off I want to say that when I worked at Toyota it was “expected” that everyone contribute their ideas and efforts toward continuous improvement, BUT it was voluntary. That seems a bit paradoxical, but getting people to be “involved” comes in many ways. Sometimes people had other commitments outside of work that prevented DIRECT participation, but that didn't mean we couldn't include them. We solicited their thoughts and ideas DURING work. Improvement is not something done in addition to the work, it IS the work! That is the Toyota philosophy. Read full response.

Pascal Dennis

Pascal writes, in part:

But compared to resting on your oars, or milling around aimlessly, kaizen is difficult.

As Dave suggests, it's much more honest for a person, or an organization to simply say, “No, thanks. This is too hard.”

Which begs another question: Is TPS/Lean for everybody? Read full response.

To see if there were more responses, visit

How would you answer that question about making time? Post a comment below.


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. BS says

    Endorse points above. My add is to ask the CEO what has been done to remove overburden for her people. The fact that she implies that doing Lean means adding something to her people’s workload indicates that Lean is something extra in addition to all the stuff that is going on. So I am not sure the CEO does indeed have a grasp of Lean. The question she should be asking is, “How do I reduce overburden and unevenness so I can have my people work on improvements that are important”.

  2. […] a post from 2014 on this same topic, making time for Kaizen, that includes some thoughts from Jeff Liker, Michael Balle, Karen Martin, and […]

  3. […] Just as it is important to reserve a specific time just for writing and refining code, it is equally imperative to take time away from the complex symbols of computer language in order to conceptualize new features and additions to the project. If you never set aside to time to create and innovate, you’ll be following a linear non-malleable path that leaves no time for improvement. […]

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