Frontline Improvement by Small Kaizen

Small-scale Lean problem solving

by Jim Chrisinger, Director, King County Continuous Improvement

Every quarter, Bill Wells had to respond to requests from his Human Resource Division (HRD) colleagues and send and resend, and resend, HRD’s training and development matrix calendar.  He spent about five minutes on each request, which was not a lot of time, but clearly not value-adding.

How can Lean help Bill?  His problem doesn’t come close to needing a week-long kaizen event.  That’s why several King County agencies are experimenting with small-scale Lean problem-solving methodologies.  Since October, HRD employees have been testing Frontline Improvement by Small Kaizen* (FISK), a methodology created by HRD’s Misty Hardie.

Bill Wells

Bill Wells

So Bill used the “FISK” method – ready on a one-page form– to look for a solution to his problem.  The form led Bill through a series of questions:

  • Describe the problem,
  • Why does the problem occur? (root cause analysis)
  • What’s your idea for a solution? (countermeasure)
  • What point in the process will you track? (data)
  • When will you test your solution?

Then, Bill got his supervisor’s permission to test his idea.  After he tested, he entered the results in the form’s second part.  His solution – storing the calendar in a central place and sending an announcement when it was completed for the current quarter – worked.  Then the people who wanted the calendar could access it themselves.  Bill estimates that this improvement saves 4.5 hours of staff time a month, which has a dollar value of about $135.

Some other FISK ideas have saved more money, like $4,000 less spent on printing when Training made improvements that enabled them to better align the number of copies printed with the number of people who would actually attend the training.  The goal here is not just about saving money, though we certainly want to save money.

The goal is moving King County toward a workplace culture where everyone is looking for small ways to eliminate waste every day.  Many small improvements add up.

Cyndi Schaeffer

Cyndi Schaeffer, who heads up training and organizational development for HRD, championed FISK in HRD.

In another FISK example, Cyndi Schaeffer found that she was wasting time repeatedly entering in a list of recipients on emails.  She realized that she could save time by learning how to create her own distribution lists.  So she did.  Again, Cyndi’s was not a momentous improvement, but if every King County employee eliminated one hour of wasted time a week, we would gain the equivalent of 325 more employees in productivity.

One key to FISK’s success is that employees try improvements that are within their control, or the control of them and a few others they can directly engage.  That’s one way that FISK is different from many employee suggestion systems, which often result in employees suggesting changes that other people should make.

Kira Wenzel, who started at HRD as an intern last summer, helped Misty implement FISK.  Kira had learned about Lean in school.  “What I like about FISK is that it’s more a learning tool than a performance tool.  It’s about experimenting to find what works.  When something you tried didn’t work, that doesn’t mean that you failed.  You learned.  You’re now in a better position to try something else.”

FISK Display Board

This board shows the FISK forms in their stages of development: idea, track and test, and results.  “The boards are becoming more of a healthy brag space,” noted Kira Wenzel.

Kira also emphasized the importance of training.  Lauri Owen of the County’s Continuous Improvement Team helped orient everyone in HRD to the basics of Lean.  Misty and Kira provided all HRD employees with FISK training and many supervisors were coached on the critical role they play.  In a Lean culture, supervisors need to support more than control.

Kira explained, “Don’t tell an employee whether you think it’s a good or bad idea.  Go ahead and test it.  Help with organizational knowledge, coaching, or making a connection with someone who could be valuable.  Or provide an idea to help improve the test.”

King County Elections and the Records and Licensing Services Division are also experimenting with a somewhat different Lean frontline problem-solving methodology.  The Continuous Improvement Team recently met with HRD and these work units – and with the Wastewater Treatment Division; their “Bright Ideas” program has similar aims – to learn more about the successes and challenges of these efforts with an eye towards an approach that everyone in King County government could use.

* “Kaizen” is a Japanese word that means “change for the better.”  Kaizen is a word commonly used in organizations implementing Lean thinking and tools.

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