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Change for the Better

There are no big problems, just a lot of little problems.

– Henry Ford

Kaizen is probably the most important concept in the Toyota Production System. The word kaizen can be broken into its two components: kai, meaning “change,” and zen, meaning “good.” It was brought to the West in 1986, when Masaaki Imai wrote Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Success. I agree with Imai and others such as Bob Emiliani that say “there can be no Lean without kaizen.”

Although kaizen is generally thought of as large numbers of small improvements that add up to create a large overall change, it is important to understand that this is not a restriction. Kaizen can be small activities by individuals, small ongoing team-based activities, focused multiple-day events to make rapid, significant improvements, or large improvement projects driven by executive staff.

In most companies, problem solving and improvement starts by having a team of managers carve an hour or two a week out of their schedules. Over several weeks, they discuss problems, typically in a conference room. They brainstorm ideas for changes or improvements and make detailed plans about how to implement their ideas. This process takes a lot of time, and may or may not actually solve any problems.

With kaizen, less time is spent planning and more time is spent experimenting. The planning takes place at the gemba, typically by the people directly involved in the process. These people have a better understanding of what is actually happening on the floor and are more likely to take ownership in the improvement process when they are included in the kaizen. Each individual experiment is relatively small, so there is a low risk that any one change will cause large negative impacts. Over time, the changes, especially the learning from continually planning, doing, studying, and revising, create large cumulative positive effects.

In addition to the individual or small-team kaizen activity with small experiments, Lean organizations also utilize kaizen events in order to aim for more radical changes. The events are generally three to five days long, with the entire team fully dedicated to the activity. During a kaizen event, the first day is spent planning, the next couple days are spent doing, and the final days are spent studying and acting on the results. Kaizen events can create very significant improvement in a short period of time. They are especially effective when someone from the senior leadership team helps facilitate the event, allowing approvals to purchase equipment or modify processes to be expedited.

Kaizen and kaizen events follow the PDSA cycle we previously discussed. The steps are:

  1. Define the problem. (Plan)
  2. Document the current state. (Plan)
  3. Determine the desired future state with measurable targets. (Plan)
  4. Identify solutions or improvements. (Plan)
  5. Develop the plan. (Plan)
  6. Implement the plan. (Do)
  7. Study the results and compare to the plan, targets, and desired future state. (Study)
  8. Document the change in standard work, or use what was learned to create the next experiment. (Adjust)
  9. Document and publicize the kaizen activity. (Adjust)

The last step—documenting and publicizing the kaizen activity—is important and should not be neglected. Many Lean organizations have kaizen boards, kaizen newspapers, or kaizen “wall of fame” areas where such activities are made visible. This is both motivating to others and can inspire other ideas for improvement.

Another critical concept of kaizen, often missed by even the best Lean organizations, is “unlearning.” Chihiro Nakao said, “You have to go back to zero. Put yourself under dire circumstances to think differently.” Many business writers have discussed the “learning organization,” but unlearning old standards, methods, or even rationales is just as important, if not more. Learn, and unlearn. Remember the Zen concept of beginner’s mind?

The role of the leader in kaizen is critical. You must demonstrate and explain why kaizen is important for your organization. You should lead by example and personally lead both big and small kaizen. Ask your employees to participate in kaizen activity and support it by providing time, training, and mentoring. What a great way to get to know the folks at the gemba, and also to teach them about PDSA and improvement methods! Ask your leadership team to do the same. When you implement kaizen, be careful about creating arbitrary goals for the number of kaizen activities; instead, create a culture where kaizen is supported. Finally, celebrate kaizen, especially when learning occurs from failure. Learning is an improvement in itself.

When using kaizen, it is important to not sacrifice time for perfection. Remember, the goal is to create ongoing incremental improvements, not to find the perfect one-time solution.