Kaizen is a process of making lots of small, ongoing changes that contribute to more significant overall improvements. From the Japanese meaning ‘change for better’, Kaizen utilises a combination of problem solving, waste identification and standardised working practices to refine and improve existing systems.

There are five principles that kaizen follows, including:

1 Know your customer
2 Let it flow
3 Go to Gemba
4 Empower people, and
5 Be transparent

In the spirit of the fifth principle, we’re sharing our experience of introducing Kaizen to an environmental testing lab.

In December 2022, the operations management team prepared a Kaizen roadmap to run from January 2023 to May 2025. The roadmap was designed to take us through every operational process in the lab and identify waste that could be eliminated at each stage.

The primary aim of the roadmap was to work on our turnaround time performance.

We kicked-off our first Kaizen Event in January 2023 which focussed on Sample Reception, Preparation and Aliquoting processes. It was a great learning experience for everyone at Chemtech and helped us to get to grips with the Kaizen process.

Following the week-long event, we continued refining the process for another two months during which time we eliminated lots of transportation (we have a 30,000 sq. ft facility) and waiting waste. The outcome was that samples were now passed to the laboratory for downstream processing 1-2 days earlier than the previous system.

Taking the valuable knowledge gained during first event (and more importantly learning what not to do again), we moved onto our Inorganics Department, holding a Kaizen Event in each area.

We started with combustion methodology (e.g., TOC – Total Organic Carbon and LOI – Loss on Ignition), then progressed to Colorimetric (e.g., Cyanide, Phenols, Hexavalent Chromium), Wet Chemistry (e.g., pH, EC, Sulphides) and Metals extractions.

Each Kaizen Event has two weeks of time dedicated to it, as well as a period of pre-work during which each step of the process is mapped out, and time studies are performed on each action.

Week One is all about planning, taking our existing processes and repeatedly asking ourselves Why? Why do we do the tests in this order? Why do we use X piece of kit vs. Y? Why do we load X number of samples onto an instrument instead of Y? Why do we store consumables in that specific location?

By following what can often be a challenging process and working within the remits of our UKAS accreditation requirements, we are able to redefine our understanding of the work we do and create new optimised processes with a focus on turnaround time and waste elimination.

We then move into Week Two of the event, which we can only compare to the kind of activity you see on Extreme Makeover Home Edition (or Lab Edition may be more appropriate in this case).

We clear out the existing area and then rebuild from scratch, following a Kaizen 5S methodology:

  • Sort
  • Set up
  • Shine
  • Standardise
  • Sustain

During every event we managed to rebuild the process within two days while trying to manage workload and minimise delays. The outcome, however, is that results in the areas in which we have held Kaizen events, are available 1-2 days earlier to the reporting team.

As we near the close of 2023, we have begun to turn our attention to the Organics Department.

We’ve committed to significant capital investment already, but our roadmap is set to take us through to May 2025 and includes:

  • Organics Extraction
  • Volatiles
  • Organics Instrumentation
  • Metals Instrumentation

However, we have already put more projects into our Kaizen Parking Lot, including:

  • a review of our reporting processes post-LIMS implementation
  • introduction of streamlined stock management systems
  • a revisit to Sample Reception, Preparation and Aliquoting

Our on-time delivery continues to improve (when we don’t have instruments down; see an post from 25 October regarding improvements in this area) and we’ll be focusing on delivering a consistently reliable service moving into 2024.