Continuous improvement

I am a firm believer in Kaizen, not just as a way to improve industrial processes, but specifically as a way for individuals like myself to eliminate wasted time.

To some people, what I wrote above sounds horrible, and gives some people the idea that I might avoid sleeping or eating, and that I will never take a break. But it is the exact opposite of that. By applying Kaizen, I am able to use more time eating, sleeping, and relaxing. So how does it work?

To me, it is quite easy, because I spend most of my day working on a computer, and computers allow me to automate some of my work, or to let the computer do some of the work that I would otherwise have to do myself. Applying Kaizen in this context means that every day I try to think about the way I work, how I do it, and how it could be done faster by letting the computer take over some of the tasks. The important part is to do this every day. Some days, it can be a matter of minutes. Other days, it can take hours. Hopefully, the result is that the effort spent will help me save a minute or so per week from then on.

In a different essay, I wrote about how humans seem to be totally unable to estimate the trade-off between time invested upfront and time gained later on. In summary, a minute per week gained during a (say) 10-year period corresponds to roughly 10 hours of total time. In other words, it could very well be worthwhile spending an entire day for a minute-per-week gain in productivity.

But the purpose of this essay is not to repeat what I already wrote, and instead to suggest ways of accomplishing minute-per-week time gains by taking a systematic approach to this process.

As I already pointed out, I use computers every day, most of the day. As a computer user, I work with software tools such as text editors, email programs, typesetting software, etc. In my case, since I am also a programmer, I use tools such as compilers, debuggers, test frameworks, inspectors, etc. For people like me, using Kaizen is actually quite simple.

For me, I simply make a point of reading some part of the user manual of one of the software tools that I use on a daily basis, so as to learn about a better way of accomplishing some task that is so frequent that it would be worthwhile shaving off a few seconds of the time it takes.

Now, perhaps that sounds a little too abstract, so let me give you a few concrete examples:

The first example is something I did a long time ago, so the investment has paid off many times over. I learned to use so called abbrevs in the text editor that I am using. An abbrev is just any word that gets expanded into one or several other words as you type. Most text editors and word processor have this feature, but I am always surprised to learn how few people actually use it. In particular, for the French language, I use it for recurring phrases that take some time to type such as "quelque chose" (that I generate by typing "qqc"), "quelqu'un" (that I generate by typing "qqn"), or even "Bon apr├Ęs-midi" (that I generate by typing "bam"). I also use it to correct systematic typing errors. For instance, in English I seem to always type "teh" when I mean "the". By defining the former as an abbreviation for the latter, I avoid at least a minute per day of corrections.

The second example is something I also did a long time ago, namely I started using so called "dynamic abbrevs", also in the text editor. Essentially, this means that if you type the same, relatively long, word several times in a text, but it is specific to that text, so there is no great point in turning it into an ordinary abbrev, then after typing a unique prefix of it, the text editor automatically finds the rest of the word. Say for example the word "computer" in this text. By typing "comp" and then the shortcut for dynamic abbrev expansion, the first suggestion I get is "compiler", but then if I do the shortcut again, I get "computer". While it may not seem shorter to type the shortcut for dynamic abbrev expansion, than it would be to type "uter", it actually is, because there is a much lower risk for typos that would otherwise have to be corrected manually. Furthermore, in many texts, there are unique words that are significantly longer than "computer" so the saving is greater.

The last example is more recent, and I give it just to show that I do practice Kaizen on a daily basis. I use the LaTeX typesetting system, and I frequently need some text enclosed in \begin{something} ... \end{something}. Again, typing it is error prone, and as it turns out, my text editor (Emacs) can do it for me. There is a shortcut for inserting that pair into the text, and it uses the last "something" used by default, or accepts a new one; with completion, so that it is only necessary to type a prefix.

I could give hundreds of examples, most of which only saves a second or so per use, but some of which save much more than that. But again, the precise examples here are not important. They exist only to give an idea of what the Kaizen process can come up with. The important message here is the process itself, i.e., the systematic, daily activity of finding one or a few small things that saves a very small amount of time, but that does so repeatedly over a long time, preferably several years.