Distorted Meaning of Kaizen
  • January 22, 2022
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The mighty Mississippi River. A powerful and continuous flow of water that stretches from North to South in the Unites States of America. The river never stops, bringing a fresh source of food, trade, and prosperity to all of the land it touches. Great cities like St Paul, St Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans exist because of the river. The river is not there because of them, these cities were able to develop and thrive because of the river. I’ll show you where I’m going with this in just a moment.

For now, we’re here to talk about Kaizen, which can can be loosely translated from Japanese to English as Continuous Improvement. Taken a step further, it can be described as continuous self-improvement for the greater good of the community. Naturally, you would deduce that a Kaizen Event would aim to serve the same purpose, but you would be mistaken. While Kaizen Events can help to show that process improvement is possible, they fail to address the human factors that keep companies from turning the corner on creating a thriving CI culture, which is often the real problem companies face. In fact, they often send a destructive message to the organization, distorting the real meaning of Kaizen, which we’ll cover in detail later in the post. If Kaizen is like a flowing river, then a Kaizen Event is like a tsunami. Although a tsunami can wash away some bad things, the greater effect is destruction. As with a tsunami, where the water eventually returns to the ocean where it belongs; the improvement from a Kaizen Event tends to regress back to the status quo with time as the broader environmental conditions that created the status quo are fundamentally unchanged. But there is a better way to jumpstart a transformation within your company. And the good news is it takes virtually zero time or money to start and be successful. In this post, I’ll present some of the challenges presented by Kaizen Events and propose an alternative approach to driving sustaining transformation.

Here’s the rub on Kaizen Events and the Meaning of Kaizen…

There is a time and place for Kaizen Events, which I’ll explain later, but they are misused in probably 90% of all cases. In doing so, companies inadvertently set themselves up for failure in the long term. The net effect of Kaizen Events is often a quick extraction of gains and illusion of success that leads to long-term degradation of culture and the mindset of self-improvement.  In my first Lean Manager job, I was expected to deliver about 12 Kaizen Events per year, which I did. The rationale was that this would allow us to “check the box” as having implemented a culture of Continuous Improvement, solicit people’s ideas, show some savings, and other business results. It was also something that was easy for my bosses to hold me accountable to, especially when it came time to do performance reviews. This thinking turned out to be very destructive in many senses and completely misses the meaning of Kaizen.

Here’s what actually happened:
1) CI was compartmentalized to one person. It was considered my job and no-one else’s
2) Any improved process from a Kaizen Event became mine to manage into perpetuity. Process owners never really took ownership of their own behaviors and neither did their bosses, making my job completely unbearable over time
3) As soon as I left the company, the Kaizen Events stopped happening and everything went back to the status quo, only worse. The whole experience left the naysayers with all the ammunition they needed to say “I told you so, Lean and Continuous Improvement doesn’t really work”, which only made it harder to do the right thing later on.

In the end, there had been many great tsunamis but still no great river. I went back to the plant while visiting town in preparation to sell my old house, which made out to be a fantastic rental property. I was hoping to see that the “world-class” practices I implemented would still be serving them well but was disappointed to see something that looked more like a desert than a raging river.

The crux of the problem is that a single individual, no matter how much energy and excitement or even actual improvement they are ginning up, does not amount to a culture change. Even if 100% of the people participated in a one-off Kaizen Event, it does not establish a river of Kaizen; just a series of tsunamis that quickly wash away. It gets to a point where people dread the next one. The normal behavior for most people most of the time is sustaining the status quo. Too many who could hide in the shadows and appear supportive but do nothing to improve upon themselves or the company’s position. This creates a drag on the organization’s transformation because the normal behavior pattern at the individual level is to improve nothing. It takes real active and engaged work to change people’s behavior. Each person needs direct, specialized attention. It can’t be done during a week-long Kaizen Event. A real sustaining culture that embodies the meaning of Kaizen looks more like everyone improving something important every day. Not waiting for one-off Kaizen Events to come to their area or submitting ideas and praying they get selected by some committee. It means each person waking up every morning thinking “what am I going to do today to make a difference.” Leaders have to transform from commanders, dictators, and delegators who hammer down on their people to coaches who extend a rope to pull people up. This requires a great respect for people’s ability to solve their own problems, most likely better than the leader can.

Leaders who are serious about making this cultural transformation need a mechanism for challenging, coaching, facilitating, and rewarding every single person in driving improvement in their respective areas of ownership. The good news is that solutions exist for this that are easier to apply, less time consuming, less disruptive, and cost less than doing Kaizen Events. We’ll discuss one later in this post.

Kaizen Events are like the Hare when the Real Meaning of Kaizen is to be more like a Tortoise

In the early days of the Lean movement, consultants who studied Toyota’s management system went out to other companies and realized a significant gap in what was being done versus what the world needed the company to do. The executives at these companies felt a high sense of urgency to close this gap and the consultants, who often flew in from far away lands, had to squeeze in years worth of transformation into one work week so they could get back home in time to spend the weekend with their families. This is how the week-long Kaizen Event was born. The consultant then worked up some huge, mostly hypothetical cost savings, leaving the client with the bill and a list of things to do in their wake. This left the company thinking that the it could be fixed really quickly and easily, sans the painstaking work of developing people along the way. Furthermore, there was no expectation that people embrace a mindset of self-improvement as with the real meaning of Kaizen.

The Kaizen Event represents “hare-thinking”, which means to sprint ahead or catch up, then take a nap from improving anything for a while. Then wake up and sprint ahead again with another Kaizen Event. It never encourages any real sustaining behavior change from anyone. Thinking back on my Lean Manager experience: I would organize these Kaizen Events and invite the Plant Manager and other leaders to participate. After many sighs and eye rolls, I might finally get a hard maybe from some of them. Rarely did leaders ever actually show up to the events or participate. Furthermore, it was a struggle to keep them from pulling their people out of the events midway into it. A Kaizen Event sends a clear signal from leadership; we want quick and easy results but we’re not committed to change.

The Tortoise, however, is on a slow and steady trek to the finish line. Once the race has begun, there is no stopping. The tortoise is happy to go at whatever speed can be sustained for the entire race, placing the values of consistency, persistence, self-mastery and discipline, community service, patience, and focus above all. They knew they weren’t the fastest when they entered the race, but they were playing the long game. They did it anyway to make themselves better, even if just a little bit. The tortoise uses process improvement not only to get better results, but to improve itself, which ultimately improves the community at large. This is the mindset that is required for a sustaining CI culture. The godfather of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, said “The slower but consistent tortoise causes less waste and is much more desirable than the speedy hare that races ahead and then stops occasionally to doze. The Toyota Production System is successful when all the workers become like tortoises” in his book “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production.” And we all know how the race between the Tortoise and the Hare went. The Hare stopped improving, fell asleep, and got beat. Don’t do that.

Its better to see people making small improvements all the time than to see them swinging for the fence for huge improvements once in a while. As a leader, this is easier to cultivate than you might imagine. We’ll discuss some solutions that are available later in this post.

Taiichi Ohno on Tortoise - Impruver

Kaizen Events create a Culture of “Improve Later” Instead of Always Being In-sync With the Customer as Called for by the meaning of Kaizen

The market that any company serves is a constantly moving target. Customer requirements, tastes, interests, irritants and other attributes change from day to day. Your business grows when your offering is in alignment with these constantly changing attributes and shrinks when you are out of sync. Strategy Execution, or Continuous Improvement, is the mechanism that keeps your company in sync with, or possibly ahead of, the market. People at work naturally tend to seek comfort, which they can readily find in what is familiar to them. Therefore, CI should be constantly nudging your people away from their comfort zone and toward the organization’s better interest, to be in alignment with the needs of the market.

Kaizen Events are a way of “batching up improvements” into one short event as a means to catch up from being chronically behind. Not only does this violate the Lean law of “create flow”,  as in create a never ending flow of improvement, it also signals to the organization that it’s perfectly fine to wait for the next event to try out that great improvement idea you have. Waiting is also one of the 7 (or 8) Lean wastes by the way. While you were waiting for that Kaizen Event, you may have missed months of business benefit and learning that would have been gained by acting immediately. Furthermore, every time improvement stops in between Kaizen Events, the company falls back out of sync with the market, leaving an opening to be overtaken by competitors.

There are problems with batching improvements just as there are with batching work in progress, or WIP: you have no idea which improvement(s) really contributed to the results achieved. Kaizen Events are an inherently unscientific practice. The scientific method calls for forming and testing hypothesis by controlling all variables, making one isolated change, then measuring the result; then moving on to the next isolated change in a series, or flow, of experiments. If you do a Kaizen Event and make 20 changes at once, benchmarking is rendered impractical because all 20 improvements would need to be copied elsewhere, which could be disastrous for too many reasons to name here.

It’s better to stay in-sync with the market by improving at the rate of change in the outside world. The market includes customers but also suppliers, labor, government, environment, and all other moving pieces that make up your business. Jack Welch famously stated “If the rate of change outside is greater than the rate of change inside, the end is near.” Frequent improvement conditions people to embrace change and helps them to be comfortable driving it themselves. Otherwise, lack of change breeds entitlement, complacency, and contentment with the status quo.

When Should You Use Kaizen Events

As stated before Kaizen Events are a tool that is chronically misused and distort the meaning of Kaizen. Using a weeklong event to undo years and years of poor management is not an effective application. All that will do is create a false flag that everything is fixed so that these managers can go right back into mismanagement mode. However, there is a time and place for Kaizen Events. You’ve probably heard the expression that you need to fight fire with fire. The Kaizen Event is actually a very appropriate tool for responding to major disruptive events in the marketplace. See what I’m doing there: you respond to an event – with an event. Kaizen Events are inherently disruptive; and you almost need to respond to external disruption – with internal disruption. The COVID pandemic, rapid technological innovation, the great resignation, government mandates, etc, etc…all these major, all of a sudden, disruptions should trigger Kaizen Events to realign organizational operations with the new reality quickly. However, this should be followed up with daily improvement as these disruptive market changes are usually followed by a series of collateral changes as well. Even in this sense, the term Kaizen Event is a misnomer. The more appropriate term would be an Improvement or Realignment Event.

The Solution

Kaizen Events, if misused which is common practice, can do more long-term harm than good. It is not a tool for undoing years and years of mismanagement, but can be used to help combat disruptive external change. A better approach for creating a thriving CI culture is to get into a habit of frequent small improvements yourself, then develop this pattern into your direct reports as well. These small but weekly or daily improvements should be targeted at the single most important thing for your company to improve in order to grow. This requires another often underdeveloped skill: prioritization.

Here’s a simple process to help you do this:

  1. Keep a finger on the pulse of the market and get clear about what is most important to improve for the company to grow. A leader should have crystal clarity about his/her Wildly Important Goal, because without it, improvement is not possible.
  2. Gain alignment by getting direct reports to commit to improvement within their own area of responsibility in sync with their leader’s Wildly Important Goal. This is not done by setting 10 or even 3 goals; its better to focus on the one wildly important business outcome to be delivered per person. Then cascade and repeat this simple step until everyone in the company is committed to improvement in their area of ownership – in alignment with the company’s strategic objective.
  3. Drive execution and improvement frequently; at least weekly but daily if necessary. Ideas, methods, philosophies, plans, or meetings don’t improve anything – only action does. Change is the primary ingredient in the recipe of improvement – and positive change usually doesn’t happen on its own. It must be driven through coaching and people development, which is best done by a person’s immediate manager.
  4. Reward and Recognize those who are achieving. Create a winnable game for all and reward people when they win. If you don’t the winners will leave and the losers won’t.

Impruver is the ultimate tool of operational transformation and provides a super simple mechanism for doing the steps mentioned here in a single software package. It is built on the principles of the 4 Disciplines of Execution and Toyota KATA making it better for driving strategy execution than the disparate tools used at even the world’s must successful companies.

Download a chapter of the best-selling new leadership book, FIT: The Simple Science of Achieving Strategic Goals

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