I’m back from joining Honsha on their semi-annual Executive Development Mission to Japan. It was a remarkable learning experience — although I’ve been on two other study trips to Japan, there’s always something new to see and understand when you visit a company that has adopted (and adapted) the Toyota Production System.

The president of one company we visited said something that really resonated with me:

“If you can’t save 1/10 of a second, you won’t be able to save 1 second.”

He made this comment when we mentioned how impressed we were with the kaizen done in a production cell. It was an incredibly efficient cell already, with no obvious waste that we could see. The president pointed out that in a recent kaizen, one of the workers had moved a handle to reduce his arm motion by approximately three inches. (This was in a cell where the cycle time was less than a minute.) It didn’t change the amount of walking or the overall cycle time. It just reduced the amount of reaching with his right arm.

Such a small improvement was clearly the result of careful observation and thinking. Frankly, it would have been easy for a worker to say that there was no room for more improvements. But the president steadfastly believes that before you can ask for big improvements, you have to be able to find small improvements.

To me, there are two levels of meaning here. Most obviously, one second is composed of tenths — you’ll have to combine ten of them to save one second. And if you can’t find even 1/10, you’ll never get one second.

On a deeper level, developing the eyes to see a one second improvement takes practice. It’s hard to see the opportunities for large improvements if you can’t even spot simple, small improvements.

That’s a good reminder for leaders that kaizen means *continuous* improvement, not necessarily large improvements. The foundation for major improvements is built with bricks of 1/10 of a second.