I always like to discuss the concept of Kaizen in my sessions. I feel it’s often very misused and even misunderstood in the Lean world. As far as that goes you can say the same about Lean I suppose. There are so many different definitions and articulations of that concept out there across different industries. I always say Kaizen without value to the organization can be wasteful action and potentially harmful to a culture. For example- counting how many kaizens we have “turned in”. This is when I ask for clarification of how organizations interpret the concept. When people say to me “we are doing kaizen”, I ask- “what are you actually doing”? They will reply “improving things”, I will say- “how do you know”, they will say “by making them better”. You can see this vicious circle you can find yourself in. As my Japanese trainer would say, “no measure no do”!
I really strive to pass on the real definition of continuous improvement to people that was taught to me through shared wisdom. My trainers always stressed to us if you don’t have standards in place and measures then there is no true continuous improvement (kaizen). I use an approach with organizations called DAMI (not DMAIC) – Define – Achieve – Maintain -Improve. This is the special recipe for true kaizen. Basically you define a standard that meets the internal and / or external expectations by understanding capability and customer pull. You then achieve it through repeatability and predictability of the process. Once that happens you maintain for stability, then the expectation should be to raise the bar (improve). Its shocking to learn from many places they actually don’t know what their capability is. To me its hard to know true kaizen without those crucial pieces.
When kaizen is given a label as the “event” it tends to become something we only do when we deem we have time for it. If you have to make time for it then that should be an immediate “andon pull” to how we lead / manage our organization and develop people. This can slowly get us off course and as a result bad habits can be developed by leadership . What you want to see is “Everyday-Everybody-Engaged” (E”cubed”). If you are an organization that is trying to develop your culture/people then continuous improvement should be part of your/their daily work – on the floor, at the process engaging in dialogue with the primary process owners to understand what should be happening versus current state. If you have standards or ideal states then it sets the stage for kaizen by the primary process owner (the heart and soul of your organization). A simple discussion with them can lead to improvement ideas, it doesn’t have to be an “event”, when it becomes more about a result driven measure versus a development process for people then we are more than likely trying to check off a box. Not saying this happens everywhere, but I see it more often than not. Kaizen needs to be grounded by setting standards, developing people and connecting the value to the company and customer- these actions shouldn’t be seen as an event but foundational.
I think the bigger improvements that require more time, resources, support, and learning opportunities should require leadership involvement and connections to the KPI’s in a more formal, visual. and planned way. These opportunities then pave the path for more learning and empowerment of people which conditions them to make the connection to their role and kaizen should start to be more the norm versus us nudging. A role of a good leader will foster that in people. We were always taught to look for very small things and build our “waste awareness muscle” within our areas and outward to the touch-points of our customer. (Order to customer value stream). Again kaizen or improvements not linked to value to the company and customer can be wasteful action.
So I think kaizen is awesome if done in the correct context as explain above. It’s a necessary process for long term sustainability, growth and flexibility with our ever changing market. We must always try to keep our competitors in our rear view mirror and ensure we look at people as the most important asset of the organization. As Zig Ziglar once said – “It’s better to train someone and lose them than to NOT train them and keep them”. So build true kaizen into your daily culture, not an event we create time for.