Continuous Improvement

I think it’s interesting to look at field work as a series of small actions that reverberate loudly. The care of the collection method, temperature of bottleware, or any number of other minute detail may influence the data collected as well as the decisions made based on that data. When you look at field work through this lens, detail is paramount.

This fixation on detail works out well for me because I’m great at sweating small stuff, and anytime I can put a positive spin on my neuroses is just swell. Kidding about my mental stability aside, the Japanese actually have a term for continuous improvement to small detail yielding significant results. It’s called kaizen, and I’d make the argument that in field work, it’s an incredibly potent concept.

First, let’s break down what it is exactly. The literal translation of kaizen means “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is an attempt to streamline workflow and improve quality through a constant search for means of optimizing performance. It’s about using innovative thinking and planting small changes in order to reap big results.

Having been with the company since ye olden days, there are a few instances of this that come to mind: switching from ratchets to impacts, swapping bottleware out on a poor sample instead of attempting to recapture a sample, labeling wells permanently in concrete reducing the need to reference maps, increasing available lines on field forms and chains of custody to reduce the need to fill out additional forms. Looked at individually, any of these changes may save a tech 3 minutes per well, but on a site with 20 wells, that will result in an hour saved. Applied to similar sites with 250 workdays in a year, you’ve potentially saved 10 days of labor. And that number is per individual tech.

A secondary effect of this practice is that it engages all levels of employees. Each employee regardless of station has the ability to make long term dramatic impacts based on small changes they influence. This emphasizes the importance of each individual and their contribution to the success of the team. Their actions matter.

Kaizen is an interesting concept that stresses a focus on fundamentals. It posits that a continuous search for minor improvements has the potential to yield long term gains as well as engage employees. Any major action taken is ultimately a sum of its parts, and through a collaborative effort to perform those parts optimally, the major action can be no less than exceptional.

Chris Cooper