In a Buddhist temple, we talked about reality. We learned it’s etymology as we sat on round cushions on the floor with windows to our left looking out onto a garden of raked stones and wet leaves. We heard the fable of the three blind men touching the elephant: the one who touches its tail and believes an elephant is like a snake, the one who touches its leg and thinks it’s like a tree trunk, and the one who touches its ear and thinks it’s like a fan. We define our realities based on limited information, and as we practiced zen meditation we were told to seek out new information through different methods of perceiving, to listen to our bodies and to the ways our minds wander as we control our breathing. We were told to do this without judgment, without judgment for ourselves or based on preconceived notions, and to be flexible, open to the new realities we experience.
I was surprised to hear this message again at the companies we visited. The success of many of these companies was based on their ability to see the world differently. They sought out different perspectives, and cultivated flexibility so that kaizen could rise from the bottom up.
My favorite example of this was Omron. At their joint venture Omron Kyoto Taiyo, 80% of the employees have a physical or mental disability. The venture’s goal was to make it possible for all people to have independence through employment. But it’s not a charity. All of the parts and devices manufactured there are sold at a profit, and the process improvements, the kaizen, developed there are shared with all other Omron factories.
When a new employee is hired, they assess the worker’s abilities individually and develop work stations, processes, and tools to make the work possible but also more efficient. They do not make the assumptions that most factory workflows take for granted, that “everyone will be able to figure this out” or even that everyone can walk, read, or use both hands. We were shown a device for one man who was responsible for packing small parts into clear poly bags and sealing them. He was paralyzed except for use of his hands, which shook with small tremors. Omron developed a device to feed single bags out and using air it opens the bag and later seals it with the push of a button. This device is specific to his workstation, but he works quickly, faster than the more physically able person to his right doing the same job. At another station, a machine feeds out individual boxes to an employee who assembles and packs them. Only when a person with a wheelchair worked at this station did they become aware of how inefficient it was for a person to move from their seat, walk to the stack of empty boxes, and return to their station. When others worked this station, they did these extra movements unthinkingly, but a different perspective brought that waste to light, creating an opportunity for kaizen.
Rather than trying to make humans adapt to a certain definition of reality, they make reality adapt to the people involved. They accept that people are hesitant to take on big tasks, and so for the walkways and paths in the factory that are carefully lined with color-coded tape, they use small strips of tape to form dashed lines, making it more likely that when a section of tape becomes dirty, someone will replace the single section. Binders are no longer organized in numerical order; their spines display a section of a continuous photograph, a picture that is only clear when the binders are in the correct order. Not only is this easier for those with varying levels of mental ability to understand, but it takes advantage of human nature, that an out-of-order version of the photograph would be anxiety inducing and easily identified by anyone who could then fix it.