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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Kaizen events are mainly a tool to open the minds of the leadership

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Monday, June 2, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I have personally been involved, along with my associates, in leading kaizen events for over 15 years. We never used a very rigid format. They could range from 2 days to 5 days. I had associates who were formally taught by shingijutsu and preferred 5-day events and were exceptional at leading them. They were quite exciting and were especially so in the early days. There was action. People were engaged. There were results. Management was excited. We still lead events and I never feel they are a bad thing. But I have learned some lessons along the way.

One example was work we did for the Navy over a decade ago. I worked in the area of lean shipbuilding, was one of the first, and we did events in various American shipyards. An admiral engaged us to do one demonstration kaizen event in each of the Naval shipyards in order to convince the local leadership that: A) lean could be applied in ship repair and overhaul, and B) it was a good thing. I had taken the admiral on some plant tours, including to a Toyota plant and a supplier, and I emphasized the never-ending learning journey and that kaizen events were mainly a tool to open the minds of the leadership to possibilities. We led successful events in each of the shipyards and the participants bought in, and the Captains saw promise. One shipyard captain was especially engaged and enthusiastic about continuing. We had worked in the ball valve area and the changes in one week were amazing to him. Being a large bureaucracy four months later they were still trying to schedule the second event. In the meantime he assigned a new leader to the lean effort, an exceptional leader highly respected in the shipyard. This guy read like crazy and visited our “model area” where we did an event and was surprised it looked just as it had when he managed it many years earlier. All of the great changes we made in the event had evaporated.

At that time I had a doctoral student, Bob Kucner, who needed some lean experience and a dissertation topic (as written about in The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement). I assigned him to work in the shipyard. He spent the summer with this leader in the ball valve area to make it a real model. It was a long and arduous process, extending through the fall, to get the supervisor and technicians to understand and take ownership of each of the changes. There were steps backward and forward. There were major milestones like the day they unanimously agreed to tear down the storage racks for the many work-in-process ball bearings. They were scared to death of what would happen, but they had worked hard to create a reasonable flow of bearings through the processes making dozens of changes and the result was that they realized they did not need the inventory. Ultimately the success of the ball valve area became a model for the rest of the shipyard and even a model for repair and overhaul of an entire nuclear submarine.

Interestingly almost every idea that was implemented over six months by the ball valve team had been identified in the kaizen event and rudimentary attempts were made to implement many of them. But the people in that shop did not understand the changes, or have ownership, and thus without external pressure they were not sustained. What we learned was that the speed of coming up with ideas to eliminate waste far exceeded the capacity of that team to understand, assimilate, and own the changes. They needed time. And the details of how they implemented ideas like standard work were far more thoughtful then what had been developed in the kaizen event.

I have experienced this phenomena many, many times. The event is like an injection of drugs that creates immediate euphoria, but what the organization needs is a lifestyle change and they have to do the hard work to earn it. Now I have seen with the right leadership, extremely dedicated, with a deep understanding, events can be a very successful tool for change. And there are powerful elements like getting cross-functional teams highly focused for a defined period of time. But in my experience what matters more then the event is what happens after. Does it trigger a learning process of continuing improvement? Does it launch a process of struggling to achieve objectives through PDCA? Does it raise curiosity enough to open the organization to really start learning how to improve? In my experience it usually does not.

I should say that Toyota in the U.S. at some point adopted what they called jishuken and they were 5-day kaizen events. Jishuken means voluntary self study and is normally in Japan a model line project that takes about 3 months. But the 5-day event caught on in Toyota factories in the U.S. The Japanese TPS experts were a little concerned, but they let it go. As long as it spurred interest in learning about kaizen they were fine with it. But if it became the main approach to kaizen they would be very unhappy.

So the real question is the role played by event-based change. Is it a shot in the arm to open the minds of people and launch a more sustainable, long-term process or does it become the definition of lean in the minds of the people? If it fails to lead to sustainable improvement does that mean the events caused this or the management culture was not ready for a real commitment to the kind of cultural transformation required for lean? I believe that with the right leadership any approach to change can become something positive and a part of the journey. But jumping from event to event will never by itself lead to sustainable continuous improvement.

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