Thursday, August 19, 2010

In Defense of Kaizen Events

Over the past several years, I have encountered a growing negative view towards kaizen events, continuous improvement events, rapid improvement events, kaizen blitz or any other name we assign to a typical week long, team based improvement activity. I have been told by one company executive “That kaizen events are too expensive and the results are not sustainable.” I have heard from many different people that “Kaizen events are just a way for consultants to make quick and easy money.” The negative comments go on as one senior company executive told me that “Kaizen events are a sign of immaturity on the lean journey.”

In reflection, all these comments about kaizen events may indeed be true depending on the circumstances. I have seen kaizen events which are expensive along with a high amount of backsliding from the initial results. Certainly, there are many lean consultants and practitioners out there that use kaizen events as their primary (only) method of getting process improvements. But the comment that had the most impact to me was the last one, kaizen events are a sign of immaturity.

As an infant straight from the womb, our single source of nourishment was milk. In the beginning, that is all we need and the only thing we could digest. Eagerly, we suckle the warm milk and we begin to grow. As our bodies grow and mature, we soon need more than just milk. Our diet starts to change. First we move to soft foods which satisfy our new needs. After a short time, our development continues and we have greater needs. Slowly we add solid food. Before we know it, we have a complete diet.

Much like milk, kaizen events are the sole source of our nourishment as begin our lean journey. It is all we need and we are not ready to consume anything else. The main purpose of a kaizen event is to grow and develop people. To help us practice observing, solving problems and experimenting in a high energy, fast paced environment. Events are great team building experiences. Kaizen events should engage people to improve, a chance to experiment and fail, to learn from our mistakes and to hone our thinking skills. Ultimately, we begin owning the improvement process, growing and maturing as we add more to our lean diet.

If all we feed ourselves is milk, we will restrict our growth and development. As lean leaders, if all we teach others is to warm milk, what results would you expect? The key is add to our diet as we need it and can digest it; going from milk directly to solid food will not work and may cause harm. Adding to our diet as we grow and mature does not mean that we completely abandon drinking milk either as some may suggest. The nourishment found in milk does not change.


Mark Welch said...

Pretty bold of you to take this position in spite of so much written of late coming from the other side of the fence. I respect that. Here's a link to a post on the TWI blog that I really enjoyed that made a lot of sense to me. At my organization we started with kaizen events and the ones that mainly stuck employed physical changes that would have taken a lot of effort to reverse. Procedural changes didn't stick because of the resistance. I don't believe we made much progress with cultural change or lean learning, either. Anyway, here's the link:

Mark R. Hamel said...

Hi Mike,

Very nice post. I applaud you for taking what is now, in many circles, a politically incorrect position. I am with you. This is not and "either or" situation but a "both and."

The end goal is a culture of continuous improvement, learning, growth and profit. Most folks typically start with event-based activity driven by value stream improvement plans and the like. This is called system-driven kaizen - powerful good stuff. Later, we should progress to principal-driven kaizen which is system-driven PLUS daily kaizen. This is the gold-standard.

A lot of folks don't sustain their kaizen event gains because of a number of reasons, but often the biggest is that they do not have a sufficient lean management system in place. Of course, this is no reason to throw the baby (hey, great picture) out with the bath waster. We should just learn to implement and rigorously maintain good lean management systems. Kaizen events don't kill people, people...

Keep the faith.

Best regards,

Mark Welch said...

I think the best system is one in which the frontline leadership and staff are involved in deciding and will dedicate themselves to. This means using PDCA to develop your system. I have personally seen system-driven kaizen crash and burn because mid-level management absolutely hated it - partly because no one asked them if they wanted it - it was rammed down their throats. They also resented the strain on staffing in a small facility. Both valid reasons for rejecting it.

Whatever system is employed, it needs to be one that people embrace and that they have a say in how it will be deployed, whether it is point kaizen or system-driven kaizen.