5 lessons from the Japanese “kaizen” approach to sustainability

Health-care organizations have long used the Japanese "kaizen" approach to improve efficiency, quality and productivity. However, the kaizen philosophy also can be used to improve sustainability practices, as demonstrated by Beaumont Health System, a large health-care provider serving the Detroit suburbs. Beaumont's ongoing kaizen program has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in resource savings.

Defining "kaizen"

First introduced in post-war Japan, "kaizen" is the Japanese term for "improvement." In business, a kaizen means a process-improvement initiative undertaken by a group of employees, sometimes in cooperation with outside experts, who scour every aspect of operations seeking inexpensive, easy ways to reduce waste, improve efficiency and enhance quality. Many hospitals and health-care systems have adopted the kaizen approach because the staff and nurses on the frontlines of patient service frequently see inefficiencies in care delivery and often can think of simple ways to improve.

In recent years, a few hospital systems have turned to kaizens to address energy and sustainability improvement opportunities as well. At Beaumont Health System, "green" kaizens by various employee teams have translated into substantial recurring cost savings.

Based in Detroit, Beaumont Health System is composed of three hospitals with a total of 1,726 beds. Starting in 2011, Beaumont has organized environmental kaizen teams on a monthly basis using different combinations of hospital staff and third-party facility management personnel. These teams walk inside and outside Beaumont's various facilities, discussing every aspect of operations with an eye toward low-cost ways to reduce energy and water consumption and otherwise improve sustainability.

To add diversity of experience, the teams vary slightly each time. Team members closely examine a specific operational or physical area, observe and educate staff members who work there and help to implement changes.

5 small ideas with a big impact

Here are five creative and cost-effective ideas that have arisen from the Beaumont sustainability kaizens:

1. Removing and reducing lighting: Focusing on areas where operations and patient comfort were unaffected by lower light levels, teams identified ways to reduce the number of lamps in multiple-bulb fixtures. They also sought to eliminate unneeded lighting, such as the illumination banks over chart racks that were no longer needed because of computerization.

2. Motion detectors: In areas that are used infrequently, motion detectors that sense movement to trigger light are low cost, but save thousands of dollars per year. In some cases, simply installing more switches allowed staff members to save energy by turning off lights when not needed. 

3. Coffee-pot timers: With this cheap and easy fix, coffee pots are turned off when employees leave for the day and restarted an hour before they arrive in the morning, saving an estimated $34,000 annually.

4. Foot pedals on sinks: Because it's inconvenient to constantly turn faucets on and off by hand, they tend to run continuously while staff members are at the sink, using four to five gallons of water per minute. With foot pedals that must be depressed to generate water, the average flow is reduced to 1.5 gallons per minute when someone is using the sink.

5. Reduced landscape irrigation: A close look at irrigation systems revealed unnecessary watering of rocks and sidewalks, as well as over-irrigation of shaded areas. By redirecting or cutting back usage, and installing an inexpensive water-collection system to reduce consumption even further, Beaumont saves more than 468,000 gallons of water annually.

Communication is key

To round out the kaizen process, a very important step is communicating the program's plans, updates and successes. A communication program can range from newsletters and stickers on light switches to explanations on video monitors in waiting rooms and other public areas. Awareness of programs can help keep unsuspecting staff from accidentally "undoing" projects. At Beaumont, for example, a well-intentioned maintenance employee replaced light bulbs that a kaizen team had considered unneeded and had removed in a multi-floor area of the hospital.

It is also important to keep communication open on the receiving end to ensure that actions don't deter employee comfort or job performance, and that operational standards are not violated or compromised. An architectural or engineering expert can ensure that any changes comply with building codes or other established guidelines.

In general, a kaizen team should generate process-improvement ideas that can be quickly implemented with little or no expense. However, these initiatives can support or even improve broader capital investment programs. When Beaumont launched its kaizen sustainability program, several major sustainable capital investments already had been scheduled, such as replacing T12 light bulbs with more energy-efficient T8 bulbs in many areas of the hospital to save about $500,000 a year.

Irrigation photo by sangkhom sangkakam via Shutterstock