Exploring the 2 Second Lean Approach: Insights from Japan

In October, I had the incredible opportunity to dive deep into the world of “2 Second Lean” during a study tour in Japan. Led by the principles laid out by Paul Akers, this philosophy centres on making minuscule but impactful improvements to business processes. 

The notion is simple yet powerful: two-second changes, consistently applied, can revolutionize productivity and streamline operations within any organisation.

The journey was an enlightening experience, surrounded by luminaries in the field. Among them were visionaries like Mr. Amezewa, from the Toyota Production System, who moved from Quality Engineer > General Manager of the Toyota Tsutsumi plant > Vice President > President & CEO > Chairman of the Toyota Georgetown, Kentucky plant.

There was also Mr. Umemura, founder of a premier Toyota supplier, still devoted to problem-solving at 81 years old, and Mr. Yaba from Japan Railway East, architect of the impressive 7 x Minute Miracle.

Our itinerary was a tapestry of diverse industries and sectors, each showcasing the application of lean principles:

  • Visits to Toyota’s Tier 1 & Tier 2 suppliers.
  • Witnessing the construction sites of high-rise structures, to multi-unit apartment/condo construction and single-family homes.
  • Exploring service businesses, schools, post offices, and recycling facilities (garbage is either recycled or burned to produce ash for paper, fertilizer, and cement production, the heat is used to create electricity.)
  • At Japan Railway East, we witnessed the 7 x Minute Miracle in action at the Shinkansen Cleaning Theatre, which showcased not just lean practices but also the fusion of leadership, engagement, and motivation.
  • The Toyota Techno Museum & Original Toyota Factory
  • Lean Sushi Lunch (amazing)  

Key Takeaways

Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is a great lean process for all individuals. 

GTD is a flexible and adaptable productivity system, designed to help people organise their tasks, projects, and thoughts to achieve a clearer mind and more effective workflow. It comprises five key stages:

  • Capture: Collect all your tasks, ideas, to-dos, and commitments into a trusted system. (in a notebook, using a digital app, or any method that suits you). By capturing everything, you clear your mind from trying to remember everything, allowing you to focus better.
  • Clarify: Once you have everything captured, go through each item and decide what needs to be done with it. Is it actionable? If not, is it trash, something to file for reference, or something to delegate to someone else? For actionable items, decide what the next step is.
  • Organise: Organise the actionable items into categories such as projects, next actions, and waiting for (tasks that are pending on someone else). Projects are outcomes that require more than one action step. Next actions are specific, actionable steps that move a project forward.
  • Reflect (Review): Regularly review and update your lists and categories. This could be a weekly review to ensure you have a clear overview of what needs to be done. 
  • Engage: Finally, simply start doing. Work from your organised lists and take action based on priority and context. The system provides clarity on what needs to be done next, allowing for more focused and efficient work.

“Slow is smooth – smooth is fast” 

The mantra “Slow is smooth – smooth is fast” encapsulates a principle often applied in various fields, including process improvement, training and performance optimisation.

At its core, it emphasizes the importance of deliberate, meticulous and well-executed actions leading to greater efficiency and speed in the long run. It’s about prioritising precision and accuracy over haste and impulsiveness.

  • Deliberate Pace: Initially, taking time to slow down to understand the existing processes thoroughly, identifying inefficiencies and recognising areas for improvement. 
  • Defining Standard Work: Standard work refers to the established, best-known method for performing a task or process. By adhering to specific standards, teams ensure consistency, quality, and efficiency in their work.
  • Smooth Operations: Once standard work is defined and implemented, operations become smoother. Teams work cohesively, following established procedures, reducing variability, and minimising the chances of errors or deviations.
  • Increased Speed: Paradoxically, the focus on a deliberate, meticulous approach ultimately leads to increased speed and efficiency. When processes are well-defined and standardised, they become more efficient, reducing wasted time and effort. 

You cannot improve if you don’t have defined ‘standard work’

As mentioned above, standard work serves as the baseline for consistency, improvement, and innovation. It is not a static document; it’s a dynamic entity that evolves with the organisation’s continuous improvement journey. 

It provides a starting point for improvement initiatives, enabling teams to innovate, refine, and enhance processes systematically. By embracing and refining standard work, organisations lay the groundwork for sustainable and continuous improvement.

Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED)

A lean manufacturing technique aimed at reducing the time it takes to perform equipment setup or changeovers. The goal is to minimise downtime between production runs, allowing for more efficient use of equipment and resources.

The process involves analysing and categorising setup tasks into two main types:

  • Internal Setup: Tasks that can only be performed when the equipment is not running, such as physically changing machine settings, adjusting parts, or preparing tools.
  • External Setup: Tasks that can be completed while the equipment is running, like preparing materials, gathering tools, or staging equipment.

The improvement from a 30-minute setup time to 5 minutes signifies the successful implementation of SMED principles. The ongoing target of 3 minutes demonstrates the continuous improvement mindset within lean manufacturing. 

Single Second Exchange of Information (SSEI)

Similar to Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED) for physical setups, SSEI aims to minimise the time it takes to communicate essential information among team members or departments.

The primary objective of SSEI is to streamline the flow of information, making it readily available and easily accessible when needed, ultimately enhancing decision-making processes and overall operational efficiency. 

It is particularly valuable in dynamic and fast-paced environments where timely decision-making and information sharing are critical for success.

We are working for the Customer.

The customer should be the center of all operations, decisions and strategies, and every action taken within an organisation should ultimately aim to serve and satisfy the needs, expectations, and preferences of the customer.

This principle isn’t limited to customer-facing roles; it permeates throughout the entire organisation. Every department, whether it’s finance, operations, marketing, or human resources, should align their goals and actions with the objective of delivering value to the customer.

As a leader/manager – your #1 priority is to reduce waste/cost

This focus encourages streamlined processes, strategic resource allocation, and continuous improvement, resulting in enhanced competitiveness, customer value, and long-term viability. 

Leaders need to be on the Gemba

The principle that leaders need to be on the Gemba (the actual place where work happens) embodies a hands-on approach to leadership, emphasising the importance of direct engagement with employees and operational processes. 

By being present at the Gemba, leaders gain firsthand insights into the challenges, opportunities, and intricacies of the work environment. This enables them to make informed decisions, solve problems more effectively, and support their teams in overcoming obstacles.

The two most important questions

  • Are my people improving every day? 
  • Is my company improving everyday?

Toyota Thinking

  • Improving 1 x Second: The focus on making tiny but meaningful improvements in increments of a second. It emphasizes the importance of identifying even the smallest inefficiencies or time-wasting elements in processes and striving to eliminate or reduce them. 
  • Improving 1 x Step: This involves analyzing processes step by step to identify opportunities for improvement. It emphasizes the need to break down complex tasks or processes into smaller, more manageable steps. 
  • Improving 1 x Yen: Focusing on improving by one yen reflects the dedication to cost reduction and resource optimisation. It encourages scrutinizing expenses meticulously and finding ways to reduce costs, even if by the smallest margin. 

The study tour in Japan was more than an exploration of lean principles—it was an immersion into a mindset shift, a philosophy of continuous progress that transcends borders and industries. The journey continues as I bring these lessons back to my own endeavors, fostering a culture of continual improvement.

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