Kaizen and Radical Helpfulness

[This article was first published on the TechHumans blog on 2014–06–26.]


Ice Cream

Seeing this, Sam the kitchen manager came over and offered “I can do this for you much more quickly.” Strangely, the person about to scoop ice cream ignored him. He may not have heard Sam. The second person also ignored Sam. I was the third person, and I enthusiastically gave him my bowl and said “Go for it!”

It must have been frustrating for Sam watching us flounder like that because when he finally got the go-ahead from me, he dove for the scoops. Like a sheriff in the wild west picking up his six shooters, he lunged toward the metal container, grabbed one scoop in each hand, and plunged them in two ice cream tubs at the same time. Then he did it again with the other two scoops and tubs. Hmmm, there were four scoops and four tubs, what a fortunate coincidence (not!). This was a brilliant application of kaizen. I was pretty excited to share this story with the class, and eventually had my chance.

After relating my story, Ken, the instructor offered his own. I’m paraphrasing, but basically he said “Did you notice that yesterday and today, the lunch line was really long, and it took forever for some people to get their lunch? The lunch table was placed against the wall so that only one line could pass. From a throughput point of view, that’s the worst place it possibly could have been.”

Doh!!! Epic fail! We could have halved the time it took to get lunch (which felt like 15–20 minutes for some) by merely sliding the table over a few feet. We like to think of ourselves as pretty smart, but sometimes, um, not so much.

So I thought to myself (cough, retrospective, cough), why did this happen? Why, in a room full of professionals, many of us engineers no less, did no one think of this? Here are some possible answers.

Not My Job

Fear of Embarrassment or Rejection


Low Self Image

It Didn’t Occur to Me

It Was Where It Needed to Be

The Toronto Hotel Fire Alarm

Why wasn’t the hotel staff scanning the crowd to see how they could make their customers more comfortable? And why didn’t it occur to the parents to ask for help? Sometimes the best window into ourselves is that which we notice in others. What would I find if I examined my mind to see if I share those self-imposed limitations? How can I train myself to go beyond them?

At one of my employment positions, I noticed that the procurement process was dismally broken. The system we had in place was this: When you run out of stuff, go to the store and buy it. No inventory. One time a presentation to a potential customer almost didn’t happen because a blank CD couldn’t be found, and someone had to race out to the store to get one in time.

I remembered the admonition not to complain about a problem without proposing a solution, so I put together an email message outlining a system I thought would work well for us. I sent it to the guy in charge.

In contrast to my polite and respectful tone, he replied with what was probably the most vitriolic email message I’ve received in my entire career. He accused me of inventing fictitious problems, and told me to mind my own business and stick to software development. (My coworkers confirmed my statements.)

Given reactions like this, is it any wonder that so many of us do just that, mind our own business, ignoring opportunities to further the collective goals?

This is why it’s so important for a work group, department, or organization to show by their actions (words are good, but by themselves not enough) that they require respect and fair play; otherwise, how can they complain if their people lack initiative?

How the California Highway Patrol Saved My Life

How did they know, was it coincidence? Did they just happen to be driving near me? Since then I learned that anyone can call #77 and be connected with the local or state police appropriate to that location. It’s possible that a good Samaritan saw me and notified the authorities.

Since then I have called #77 many times, once for a car fire, several times when people were weaving (including trucks!), and many times when I encountered a road hazard such as a box on the highway.

Is it my job to do so? Not really, but how boring would my life be if I only did things I had to do? And besides, what nobler thing could I possibly do with my life than save another’s?

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Extending this Principle to the Broader Human Experience


  • Do I care enough to go out of my way to help my coworker, even when that is outside the scope of my measured (rewarded) performance?
  • Do I actively seek opportunities to be helpful?
  • When someone makes a suggestion to me, do I give it serious consideration? Do I feel grateful for the suggestion? If not, why not? Do I communicate that gratitude to the other person?
  • If I have authority over others, how do I respond when they make suggestions that differ from my own ideas and opinions?
  • Do I feel happy or envious when a coworker is recognized for excellence?
  • If everyone behaved as I do, would my organization be a better or worse place? In what ways?
  • Do I monitor my thoughts and actions and notice when there is need for improvement? If so, do I make an effort to correct myself?
  • Do I ask myself what am I not thinking or doing that I should be (as described in the Toronto Hotel story)?

What other questions would you add to this list?



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