I recently attended a farm symposium at which the keynote speaker was Ben Hartman.
Hartman is a farmer and author who has made a name for himself by adopting the Japanese practice of “Kaizen”, ( Continuous improvement ). In Japan, Kaizen is best known as the practice promoted by Toyota as a means of improving productivity by eliminating muda ( or waste). Through his writings and lectures – and by his experience on his small farm in Indiana – Hartman shows how the practise of Kaizen can help farmers to reduce costs and increase profits. By simply paying attention to how they farm, Hartman maintains, farmers can reduce waste and inefficiencies and grow more food in a smaller space with less work.
On the surface the practice of Kaizen seems like a slam dunk, no-brainer, win, win win…win. But as with all things, I think it important to examine what implications it has for the tinkerer.
Many of the innovations that Hartman espouses are pure tinker’s delights.
“Tools should be as light weight as possible…. if a hoe can weigh half a pound less, and if you raise that hoe 2,000 times in an hour, that equals 1,000 pounds that you didn’t have to lift in that hour.”
Likewise, Hartman’s tenet that tools should always be placed as close to where they are used is nothing short of brilliant. If I added up all the hours I spend carting tools back and forth I would have enough time for a really long vacation in the Bahamas.
But other things in Hartman’s pantheon of waste reducing strategies are more troubling to me. Getting rid of any tools and materials that you don’t use, for example. While some may look at my yard and see piles of unsightly junk, many of my best ideas and tinkering projects come from poking around my junk piles and imagining how I can re-purpose a board or a piece of pipe into something useful. While to some it may seem unsightly and messy, in many ways I depend on that mess to spark the creative juices that keep the tinkering ideas flowing.
So while I admire Hartman and the discipline he embodies, I’m not sure yet how applicable Kaizen is to what I do. Order and efficiency may be good for factories or even farms, but when it comes to creativity, in my view, Chaos reigns supreme!