Toyota, for one, is trying to do just that. Its latest Karakuri Exhibition, in June, featured 127 devices from Japan and around the world. Exhibit No. 102, called Return to Sender, showed how the pros do it.
Not long ago, frustrated workers building the Tundra pickup at Toyota's assembly plant in San Antonio had a back-breaking problem. Every time a Tundra came through their station, it would pull a cart of parts and tools with it. The problem was, after the vehicle moved to the next process, workers had to wrestle the 72-pound cart back to the starting point 25 feet up the line.
And they had to do that no fewer than 1,040 times a day.
Surely, there's a better way, thought John Alteneder, assistant manager for kaizen at the factory. The fix was as simple as it was ingenious.
Alteneder's team attached a spring- loaded line to the cart. It spools out as the cart and vehicle move down the line together. When the cart gets to the end of the process, it trips a switch, and the coil reels the cart back like a retractable keychain.
The extra cost was peanuts, but the savings in time and wear and tear were substantial.
"Now, if you tried to take it away, the team members would go crazy," Alteneder said.
Toyota's U.S. operations are new karakuri converts. Starting about five years ago, Toyota formed kaizen teams of two to eight people versed in karakuri at every U.S. plant, Toyota Motor North America's Bafunno said.
But in Japan, the tradition is as old as Toyota itself.
Employees here have mastered wringing cost and time from their work.
Kenta Kondo, a 24-year-old technician, said he has dreamed up 20 shortcuts in his five years at Toyota, netting bonuses of up to $800 for the good ones. His latest: a way to streamline testing for nitrogen oxide in diesel emissions during vehicle development.
The old way involved removing the exhaust pipe to rework it with sensors in a four-hour ordeal that cost up to $600 per test. His breakthrough: a jig that allows the sensor to be inserted directly into any pipe, eliminating the removal cost and cutting test time to 10 seconds.
Kondo spent about 20 hours devising the jig after his shift, and Toyota paid for the overtime.
"I just wanted to make my work easier," Kondo said.
Some workers spend months birthing ideas. And Toyota encourages it, even if the result delivers little cost savings, said Ninoyu, the global production planning officer. It makes employees more vested in their work.
"This is about human resource development," he said. "Instead of paying a supplier, we can supply it ourselves, make it ourselves and fix it for ourselves when it is broken."