The kaizen philosophy is a process that originated within the Toyota Company in the 1990s. The word kaizen means “continual improvement” and it is about tiny improvements that make big impacts with time. It follows guidelines such as good processes bring good results, go see for yourself to grasp the current situation, speak with data, manage by facts, take action to contain and correct root causes of problems, work as a team and Kaizen is everybody’s business and many more.
This time, we are going to take a look at the Herman Miller´s Kaizen success story, how they applied the kaizen philosophy, their results and their anecdotes while doing it.
Herman Miller is an American office furniture company that produces the very famous Aeron chair, one of the most well-known task chairs in the entire world that can be seen in movies, television shows, and commercial offices everywhere. They started applying the Kaizen philosophy in the year 2012 and the results were totally amazing with a 500% increase in productivity and 1,000% increase in quality comparing it with the year 1998. Herman Miller improved their production in more than 4 times. Their Aeron chairs, which used to take 82 seconds to come off the line, can now be produced in just 17 seconds.
In the late 90s Herman Miller was aiming at reducing costs using any means necessary in order to stay competitive in a growing market across the world. At the same time, Toyota was applying their Kaizen philosophy with great success rates and aiming to build better relationships in the U.S. as part of its effort to build more cars in America. The management at Herman Miller in that time convinced Toyota to use Herman Miller as one of the first companies in a pilot program to teach American companies Japanese manufacturing techniques. As the Kaizen Philosophy requires teachers that act as leaders, senseis or coaches, Toyota sent Hajime Oba to become the leading sensei in the application of the Kaizen philosophy in Herman Miller.
Remember that kaizen is about making small changes that will have a big impact in the long term. At Herman Miller they started by empowering their employees to propose small changes in their work station that were affecting in any way the process or attention to the task. The employees noticed that there were 1,200 “plan-do-check acts” and that year after year it didn’t propose any change whatsoever. Small changes such as the placement of a bin of washers that resulted in employees reaching 6 inches less or the rearrangement of the assembly line in terms of height so people didn’t waste a fraction of a second bending over.
Results started to be noticeable in the long term at Herman Miller. In America, It is amazing how productivity levels within companies have reached a stunning level of efficiency that was unimaginable in the past and the Aeron chair is a living proof. The chair, at the beginning in the year 1998 took a huge amount of time to be totally produced from start to end. After 15 years of production, Herman Miller can brag that they take 340 second to produce a chair. If you add all the small changes and the little seconds they save in small things such as bending over or reaching some inches less, the amount of seconds saved will be amazing. In fact, all of these tiny improvements, in the course of 15 years of life and more than 3 years of applying the Kaizen philosophy, they have come up with record times to produce the Aeron chair: they now take 17 seconds to pull the chair of the line and box it, when in the past it took over 82 seconds to the same thing; the chair is now totally produced in 340 seconds when in the past it took over 600 seconds in total to build it; safety metrics have improved by a factor of 6; quality metrics have improved by a factor of 10. The labor force and even the facilities have been impacted as a single Aeron nowadays takes one fifth of the labor to make it and the current factory is 10 times smaller.
Now, people might think that there is no other way to go from such efficiency, but Herman Miller continues to improve their times with a quarter to a half of a second at a time, month by month, to achieve results in some years in the future. Also, they are producing 17 different chairs with the same amount of labor force that was once producing five different office chairs. This is an example of Kaizen philosophy and how small changes bring big things to people that believe in them.