Kaizen bubble - Impruver

Okay so you spent the last 2 months planning this Kaizen event and the big day has come. You had to give up a kidney to get some line time freed up for this. You had to sign over your first born child to get a few operators, a mechanic, a quality person, and a safety resource booked for this event. The Plant Manager has given you an ultimatum that says if this kaizen event doesn’t result in a complete transformation of performance and culture, there’s no chance you’ll be successful with the company. Better yet, the expectation is that you get 100% buy-in from the entire workforce and all of the shop floor operators need to start taking the initiative to apply lean tools in order for you to claim any degree of success from this event. But hey…no pressure – it’s all good. Let’s do this.

You execute the event to perfection. The training is engaging and eye-opening; the observations and ideas for improvement are insightful; and the execution of action items was impeccable. After the event, the team does the report out to leadership about all the amazing learnings and changes and benefits to the business, right before breaking out into celebrating like you all just hit the lottery.

The Reckoning

The next Monday, everyone gets back to work. Back to the firefighting, the daily struggle to hit schedule, and avoiding risks of any type. However the results from the Kaizen event are showing promise, at first any way. After about a month or two, somehow the line performance is right back where it was before anything was done. How could this be? Should you have done more to recognize the good work that was done? Does the team not care about the beautiful standard work documents that were created and everyone swore on a stack of bibles that they would follow? What went wrong?

Why Your Kaizen Event Gains Aren’t Sustaining

So now it’s time for the post-mortem on your kaizen event and possibly any resemblance of your career with the company. The first stage is denial. You say things like: wait it did work. Look, this area still looks really good. And what about those potential safety accidents we avoided?

The second stage is blaming. You say things like, well it would have gone much better if this operator or that supervisor would have just done their job. You say, “the problem wasn’t the kaizen event, it’s a lack of accountability!”

Finally, you reach a stage a acceptance – and the healing can begin. You start saying, you know what, maybe I could have done some things differently. Perhaps I should have engaged more people or gotten more buy-in from leadership from the beginning.

Chances are that if this sounds familiar, you’re probably more a victim of circumstance more than anything else. Maybe you’ve been given the responsibility to lead a Lean Implementation that is expected to deliver rapid and sustaining results. However, this entire mindset is flawed from the onset. The truth is that you, or anyone for that matter, cannot will rapid and sustained results over the will and capability of the people doing the work everyday, or the people managing the business. Beware anyone claiming that this is possible because they end up doing more damage than good in the long run.

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Maximizing the Results of Your Kaizen Efforts

Here’s the reality of the matter. You can make changes or engage teams in kaizen to improve processes until you’re blue in the face. However, the business performance is truly limited to one thing: the improvement capability that exists within your workforce. So it’s not one-off kaizens that produce sustainable results, it’s gradual and disciplined mastery of the skill of improvement that gets you anywhere. This means the people who own processes in your factory need as many opportunities to sharpen their blade as practically possible.


Where the Real Improvement Happens First

It takes time and maybe some therapy to help people to cope with change – and some need more than others. Expecting rapid results is the same as denying people the time to grieve the loss of a loved one. The only thing that helps people overcome the fear and grief that comes with change is time, support and consistency, or risk causing psychological damage to your workforce. It also takes time for them to build the skills of making improvements. This is done through the practice of Improvement KATA’s. The only way to get good at golf is to play a lot of golf – there is no alternative. Watching videos and reading articles help but if you never pick up the club, you’ll never play well. One-off Kaizens are like golfing once or twice a year…good luck with that because you’re gonna need it.

Just as in golf, you need a good coach or coaches to help you with your CI game. You need someone to give you a few tricks of the trade and hold you accountable to your commitments. If you’re a Lean expert or support resource, it’s not you who will improve processes, its the people who execute them everyday. They are the golfer in the analogy and you’re (maybe) the coach. Even better if they are being coached by their immediate manager or supervisor. But the line operators are the ones who have to step up to the tee and drive the ball into the proverbial CI hole.

Making the Kaizen Results Stick

Once the right skill sets are developed, then you can expect greater results and sustainment from your kaizen efforts. Just like all other things in the universe, entropy destroys processes over time. A kaizen event might provide you with quick burst in productivity and a new process but given time and other factors, it will start to break down. If your workforce is under-developed and not capable of dealing with problems as they arise instead waiting for you or management to fix them, your kaizen gains will be short lived.

So, with all that said, the success or failure of your Continuous Improvement efforts is based on the strength of the problem-solving or CI skills within the workforce. Gains don’t sustain themselves, the people who own the process sustain and continuously increase gains. They need to be empowered to do so by building their skills through daily practice of the scientific method¬†and problem-solving. All you can do is provide them with the means and motivation to improve.

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