Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The lean process of Kaizen

October 11, 2010
Every business is looking for, or should be looking for, quality improvement concepts to make things better in their business. Without a doubt, the principles behind Kaizen lean processing can be applied to and used in your carwash or detail businesses.

So what can this management philosophy offer you in the operation of your business? To answer that you need to understand Kaizen principles and its history.

Lean processing — where it began
Shortly after the World War II, W. Edwards Demming, a U.S. statistician, was asked to be a consultant to help rebuild Japanese industry. What he introduced to the Japanese was a series of quality control concepts. His idea was to improve the production system to prevent defects rather than inspecting and throwing away the defective products. These concepts were especially embraced by Toyota, in developing their manufacturing system.

With Dr. Demming’s help, Kiichiro Toyota, founder of Toyota, demanded that his management team perform several manufacturing methods that were thought impossible at the time. Toyota was an innovator and expected the same from his managers.

What holds the Toyota production system together is a philosophy that has become known as Kaizen. “Kai” is Japanese for “change” and “Zen” is Japanese for “good.” Kaizen is most often translated to mean “improvement” or “continuous improvement.” This is the main concept that holds everything together and results in positive production. The Kaizen principles rely on teamwork, reducing errors and waste, and the ability of workers and management to communicate effectively. Don’t we all wish we had that in our businesses?

Quality defined
Without a definition of quality, how do we know what it really is? So, let’s define quality: “Meeting or exceeding the needs and expectations of the customer.” The goal of a carwash or detail business is to find out what the customer wants and then develop and maintain a process to ensure that they get it. By the way, the term “customer” should include both internal and external customers.

Without a doubt, trying to implement this philosophy in our industry is hard. For one thing, our culture in the Western world thrives on independence and the individual, more so than in the Japanese culture. While our independence has allowed the United States to be a leader in innovation, it is also a major stumbling block for those of us in the carwash and detail industries. There are simply too many entrepreneurs who want to do things their way. But, the key to successfully implementing the Kaizen process is related to how you and your employees will accept the change to teamwork rather than individualism.

The Demming technique
Dr. Demming’s approach embraced a number of techniques and methods for process control. He also advocated that quality should be the responsibility of everyone in the company. The Japanese adopted his ideas, and over time, they developed them even further. They extended the application of process improvement from manufacturing to administrative functions and service industries so that the quality concept affected the whole organization.

Kaizen in the US
During the 1980s, a number of American manufacturers woke up and realized that the Japanese had something going for them. As a result, they began to implement quality concepts and other management techniques in the areas of employee motivation, measurement and rewards. This blend of quality management techniques and philosophies is generally referred to as total quality management (TQM).

The core principles of TQM are:
  • Continuous process improvement;

  • Customer focus;

  • Defect prevention;

  • Universal responsibility.

Continuous process improvement
The steps in the continuous improvement process are to:
  • Select an improvement project with a specific goal;

  • Assign a team to improve it;

  • Define the process using a flow chart;

  • Define variability and problems in the process;

  • Find the root causes of the problems;

  • Recommend improvements; and

  • Implement the improvements as a pilot project.

Customer focus
We all have customers.

The external customer is the person who purchases our carwash or detail service. But you also have to think of the internal customer. The internal customers are those who work together as part of the team. For example those who prep a vehicle have as their customers those who detail the vehicle. Or, those who do the vacuuming in a carwash have as their customers the final detailers at the exit.

If either of these people fail to do a good job, it has a negative effect on others in the process of delivering a quality detail or carwash.

Defect prevention
Defect prevention saves everyone money.

Take, for example, a process for manufacturing a product. It begins with a specification. Drawings are produced, parts are made and assembled and the product is delivered to the customer. The cost of rectifying a defect increases by a factor of ten as the product moves through each of these states. Defect prevention is concerned with catching the errors as early in the game as possible or preventing them from occurring at all.

We all know the cost of redos in detailing and rewashes in car washing.

Universal responsibility
This concept deals with the fact that quality is not only the responsibility of the final inspectors at the wash or detail operation, but is everyone’s responsibility. Quality must be totally pervasive. Every worker should be concerned with seeking ways to improve the quality of their own work.

Along with these core concepts, Kaizen philosophy is built on some basic foundation values. These core values must be present or the system will fail. You can read these in “Kaizen Strategies for Winning Through People.” They include:

“Trust and respect for every individual, and the organizational belief that:
  • Each individual should value and respect every other individual, not just people in their own department, their own specialization, or their own level.

  • Every individual should be able to openly admit any mistakes they made or any failings that exist in their job, and try to do a better job the next time. Progress is impossible without the ability to admit mistakes.”
From these core values develops an employee who pays attention to detail, is receptive to constructive advice, willing to take responsibility, has pride in their work and company and has a forward looking approach and a willingness to cooperate.

Kaizen relies on the input of the front-line staff. They are the ones who really know what is going on, and they normally have the best ideas for improvement. These have been called by many names and implemented by many systems. Whether they are called quality focus forums, suggestion groups, etc. … the key is to get your staff involved and open to participate. It won’t happen overnight. First, change must be led by management, and the burden of examination is upon you. If you do not demonstrate to employees that you are committed, nothing will happen.

Kaizen promotes that the company must be focused on continual improvement. No matter where you begin, the goal is not to accept what is now, but to keep improving it. This requires a major change for all of us in either industry.

In conclusion
Change is not easy as we all know. Most of you will elect to not change until it is absolutely necessary. This will make it an opportunity for others to capitalize on if they look “outside the box.”

Remember that innovation is when something is done today that was thought to be impossible yesterday. The business key is that if you can reduce your cost of doing business to a significant margin compared to your competitors you hold the winning cards. You just have to play them correctly, and you will easily win.

Change requires a commitment to training by all — the company to provide it and the employees to take it and embrace it into daily operations and be aware that it must be auditable and verifiable. This is not a “pipe dream.” It’s what it takes to remain competitive and profitable.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at