Kaspar Goes Kaizen

Kaizen is the derivative of two words, ‘kai’ and ‘zen.’ Kai is change, zen is for the better, so all it means is ‘change for the better.’ So when we have an event


I stepped into the Kaspar Companies boardroom Monday morning not so bright-eyed and not so bushy-tailed. There were seven other folks gathered around the table. They seemed as subdued as I felt — it was a Monday morning, after all. The notable exception was Derek Richner. Despite it being early on a foggy Monday morning on the start of a hot Shiner summer day, a whopping 12 hour travel commute from his home in Maine, Derek, our guide for this week, was a bundle of energy. Derek is an expert in kaizen, a Japanese word defined as change for the better, a philosophy that can be applied to a person’s personal life or to an entire business. Derek has been spending his time spreading this way of thinking around Kaspar Companies. Before meeting Derek, I knew little about kaizen and wasn’t particularly looking forward to learning anything more on the subject. Frankly, I didn’t see much value in it. I doubted that I could apply a dusty old Asian ideology in my own life, and Kaspar Companies seems to have weathered the last century just fine without kaizen, so I had my doubts about the whole enterprise. In retrospect, I was dead wrong.

Before taking my seat, I introduced myself to Derek. The first thing I noticed about him were his eyes. Derek met my gaze so directly that it was almost disconcerting. It made me feel like he could tell what I was thinking. Later on I had a conversation with Derek; he had an uncanny ability to guess what I was getting at with my questions, often rephrasing them himself so he could give me a better reply. Derek’s eyes match his personality — they’re just as direct. He can be blunt to the point of being disarming. He’s never rude or impolite, but he doesn’t bother much with beating around the bush. If Derek thinks you’re wrong he’ll tell you so, and promptly give you his view on the matter. I got the impression that he’s a man that values time. That doesn’t mean that Derek doesn’t make time for fun though; on the contrary, Derek constantly told jokes and funny anecdotes during the meeting, lightly ribbing some of the Ranch Hand employees at the table that he’d worked with before. At one point, he bumped into the podium and knocked his laptop to the floor. He turned that into a joke as well. As the meeting progressed, Derek’s enthusiasm rubbed off on his audience, and before long everyone at the table was having as much fun as Derek.

Another thing that quickly struck me about Derek was how affable and likable he was. Derek treated everyone familiarly, like we were all old friends. He clearly has a knack for names. I don’t think he ever addressed someone without using their name, and he would frequently single out a person by name to get their opinion or to make a point. He’s perceptive as well. At one point in the meeting I saw someone frown at one of Derek’s slides. “Billy, I see you shaking your head,” he said. Once they were on the same page about the subject, the presentation continued. It wasn’t a cue most presenters would pick up on, but Derek did, and by addressing it he turned the lecture into a conversation. After that, Billy asked questions freely.

Derek started the session with a PowerPoint presentation. Many of the finer points of the discussion were lost on me. I don’t know much about assembly lines or changeovers or the merits of one method of fastening versus another. The broader points came across loud and clear. Derek is all about efficiency. To Derek, if a workplace is messy, it should be cleaned. If an assembly line is slow, it should be faster. It is Derek’s job to ask why those things are the way they are and how they can be fixed. More importantly, it is his job to teach people at Kaspar Companies to ask those questions. Maybe the workplace is messy because there’s no trash can in the room. Maybe the assembly line is moving slowly because there’s not enough employees working it, or maybe the employees there are organized inefficiently. Throughout the presentation, Derek gave examples of problems at other companies and solutions that had fixed them. I was surprised by the variety of industries he referenced. Derek spoke about working with burly forge workers, meticulous surgeons and tidy casino CEOs. The interesting part was that he applied the same basic principles to all of the businesses, usually with marked success. Derek gave the same sort of presentation we were getting in the Kaspar Companies boardroom to the employees at SeaWorld.

The presentation ended and Derek told us that we would do an activity. Derek directed a member of his audience that had attended one of his previous kaizen sessions to give us instructions. He emphasized that he wasn’t at Kaspar Companies to fix problems; he was there to teach people at Kaspar Companies how to fix problems. The activity was an exercise in efficiency. We were each given a page with a set of numbers printed on them and told to connect the numbers in order with a pen as fast as we could. The numbers were oriented differently, in different fonts and sizes and spread out all over the page. It certainly wasn’t my forte. I only got to five out of 49 the first time around. I think I was the slowest one at the table. After we’d finished with the first page we were given a new one with numbers that were organized more logically and told to connect the numbers again. We were then given yet another until even I could finish in the allotted time. That’s what kaizen is all about. Change for the better. Not necessarily perfect, but improved. I thought about kaizen when I got back to my office and sat down at my desk, which was messy — littered with old proofs and scrap paper and things I hadn’t gotten around to throwing away. I remembered Derek telling us about the CEO of a company that owned several casinos. Derek was walking through the floor of one of the man’s casinos when the CEO stooped to pick up a little piece of litter dropped on the ground, throwing it away himself. Then I remembered the exercise with the numbers and how organizing them just a little bit better had made connecting them so much easier. Derek Richner had proven me wrong; I did learn something from an old Japanese philosophy. I pulled the trash can closer to my desk and started my own kaizen process.