A trip to Japan has left Rotorua District Council's Mijo Katavic even more enthused about the benefits of kaizen, or lean thinking, to his organisation.
Mr Katavic is in charge of implementing lean thinking at the council - a continuous improvement model invented by Japanese car giant Toyota and traditionally used in the manufacturing sector.
Lean thinking, which aims to maximise customer value while minimising waste, was introduced at the council to improve customer service and help it with its stated goal of saving $10 million over 10 years.
After 15 months the council has saved $600,000. However, during his trip to Japan in November, Mr Katavic saw first hand how the model could deliver so much more than cost savings. That is one of the key messages he has brought back from the trip, which was funded mainly by the international Kaizen Institute and its New Zealand branch. The council paid his airfares.
"We [the council] are changing the focus on why we're doing this [lean thinking]. Saving money is a by-product to delivering better value to customers and ratepayers."
The concept behind lean thinking sounds simple and, according to Mr Katavic, it is.
"It seems common sense but people get swamped and lose sight of the basics."
All staff have been encouraged to question the efficiency of policies and council practices, leading to changes such as the "concierge service" for land developers, who previously may have had to chase around different departments during an application. Now, the council brings everyone together in one place at one time.
Lean thinking does not necessarily mean job cuts - something Mr Katavic was keen to stress.
In Japan, Mr Katavic spent the first week visiting Toyota and other manufacturing companies to see kaizen in action. He also met kaizen "godfather" Masaaki Imai. During the second week the tables were turned and it was his turn to inspire - talking to Japanese public authorities and businesses who were starting to consider the model.
The irony of companies in Japan, where the idea originated, turning to Rotorua for advice, was not lost on him.
Mr Katavic said the council was the first local authority in the world to implement lean thinking across its entire organisation and word was spreading.
"We're starting to get major interest ... we've had Hamilton, New Plymouth, Whakatane, Bay of Plenty Regional Council [visiting]," he said. "We have the opportunity to be the Silicon Valley of lean thinking in the Bay of Plenty."
He said the Rotorua Aquatic Centre, led by manager Louis Sylvester, had become the council's "lean lighthouse" with more than 340 visitors in the past year coming to view lean thinking in practice.
Mr Katavic has been passionate about the subject since he wrote about kaizen in his master's thesis on quality management six years ago.
While working as a business manager at Castlecorp he was offered the chance to become the council's business improvement and innovation manager with his sole responsibility being to implement lean thinking.
He jumped at the chance and now when he walks around the office he can see daily stand-up meetings being held and visual display boards in each department - all direct results of lean thinking.
Mr Katavic said it typically took about seven years to get the model ingrained, but the council was already well ahead of schedule. Despite that he said there was still a lot more work to do and that continued earlier this month with the training of 25 "lean leaders" for 2013.
The Kaizen Institute is holding a seminar for Rotorua businesses on March 12-13. For more information see www.nz.kaizen.com or www.rdc.gov.nz.