What Was My First Process Improvement (or “Kaizen”)?

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When I shared a link to my post about applying Kaizen to my websites, I was asked a fascinating question on LinkedIn last week:

“What was your very first process improvement?”

When I was a kid, my first job was actually being an independent contractor to deliver papers for The Detroit News. I had the route in my neighborhood from about ages 12 to 15. I delivered papers on the street I grew up on and also on the street back behind.

The density of newspaper customers was high enough that I had about 40 customers on a few streets. Maybe 50% of the houses took the paper each weekday afternoon and weekend mornings. I imagine the numbers are much lower today.

I had a newspaper bag that was designed to go over the back of a bicycle. I forget if I was given the bag or had to buy it.

It looked like this but had the Detroit News logo on it.

I had a ten-speed bike, but it wasn't really sturdy enough to put on the back of a bike.

The route was small enough that it was practical to walk. So, I cut a hole in the middle part of the bag so it would go over my head (or my mom did it). I'd put papers in both sides of the bag so it would hang with some papers on my chest and some on my back.

It probably looked a bit like this photo I've linked to.

Or this (not me pictured):

Embed from Getty Images

I'd deliver papers out of the front pocket and, when the front was empty, I'd swing the bag around so the papers on my back were now on my chest.

Sometimes I'd ride the bike. More often, I'd walk and wear the bag that way.

I think that improvement to the bag counts as Kaizen. It didn't cost any money. It was putting creativity over capital. Although sometimes on weekends, when it was early, the papers were heavier, and the weather was sometimes bad, my dad would drive me in the car to deliver the papers. It was their capital, but I appreciated the help.

It was also Kaizen because it made my job easier compared to using my bike or pulling stacks of papers in a red wagon, which I also did too. I'll have to ask my parents, maybe I used the wagon until I was strong enough to carry the papers. I do remember pulling the papers in a wagon the day of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when I was 12 years old, actually.

Did you have a first job where you practiced Kaizen? Were you naturally a process improvement thinker (and doer)?

What was your first Kaizen, at any age? What was your most recent Kaizen?

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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.

5 Comments
  1. Karen Dunn Skinner says

    And now I will forever picture you as a freckle-faced 10-yr-old on a banana-seat bike…

    But seriously, it’s a good example of how easy it can be to make small changes, and how those small changes can have a big impact on an individual’s workflow.

  2. Sam Selay
    Sam Selay says

    Hi Mark,
    I helped my brother with his paper route around the same age. We moved from batch to flow in the paper route process. Instead of rolling all the papers and then loading as many fit in our bag delivering them going back to our house reloading for 2-3 more cycles (depending on the density of the paper) we shifted to flow. We’d start to roll them together and load them in the bag as we went. The point that the bag hit the max level of papers one of us would go deliver. One would stay back and continue to roll. Then reload when one got back. Eventually we bought a second back.
    As far as my first kaizen. That was an early one I can remember. Another one was when I started landscaping I created point of use for all my tools and supplies using cardboard boxes. I upgraded later to plastic bins.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Andy Wagner says

    I’m sure this wasn’t my first Kaizen, but a memorable one: I had a job my first summer in college at an academic library. My first day, I was shown the process for making the card catalog cards (remember those?) They had printed out the database on paper and my job was to copy those paper slips onto the card stock, front and back, to cards per sheet, then take them to another facility where they had a large paper shear to cut them into half-sheet size cards.

    I was shown the painful step-by-step process of copying one card at a time, front and back, onto the card stock. It took forever.

    But the copying machine was one of those really big industrial jobs, with lots of autoloading and double-sided features… I asked my boss why I couldn’t just use the autoloader. Well, you might get the cards printed backwards and that would waste paper. (What? You’d rather waste my time than paper? To say nothing of how that was a preventable failure mode). And he said that the card stock didn’t work double sided.

    The first day, I did as I was told. The second day, I did as I was told. The third day, when the boss left, I, *carefully* set things up and ran a trial through the autoloader to make sure it was set right. I also tried the card stock double sided.

    I ended up doing the whole summer’s worth of cards in less than a week. ;-) He didn’t say he was mad, but I think he was. He struggled to find work for me the rest of the summer.

    1. Mark Graban says

      That’s a great story on many levels. It was an early lesson for you about something being rationally better doesn’t mean it will be accepted by others. People are complicated. Your Kaizen idea might have made your boss look like an idiot…

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