The Sinister Side of Kaizen Events - Impruver
  • June 13, 2021
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I get it. We all love the exhilarating feeling of finishing a week-long kaizen event where chaos finally comes to order and the results are an astonishing 30, 40, 125% improvement over the past. However, there is a sinister side of kaizen events that has already taken root the day people step off of their normal jobs to participate. This post will uncover the not-so-hidden destructive forces to kaizen events and offer an alternative approach that produces superior results without the unproductive disruption to operations.

I once challenged myself to do 100 pushups every day. This was at a time when I had not been doing pushups at all. After a couple of days of this madness, I was so sore and disenchanted that I gave up on this challenge and reverted back to my old bad behavior. It started with me justifying to myself that it would be okay to take a day off. That one day off quickly digressed into bailing out of the challenge altogether. To make matters worse, every time I considered starting a challenge like this since then, I cringe thinking about the time I tried and failed at this kind of thing in the past. Many companies experience kaizen events in much the same way. They set a target of 6 or 12 kaizen events per year. The expectation is that each event will help the company make a step change in improvement. The idea is to produce homerun hit results and use brute force of willpower to sustain the improvements through the “soreness” and chaos of making the daily bread.

In reality, entropy takes effect the moment the kaizen event ends. Google defines entropy as a gradual decline into disorder. The very notion of sustaining improvement means to be in a constant state of war with entropy. The willpower needed to sustain the gains gets redirected to fight the next crash of lightning the strikes operations. I, for one, believe that the best way to sustain improvement is to keep improving but we can get into that later. Kaizen events by their very nature produces enormous amounts of entropy due to the sudden disruption they cause to the flow of operations and peoples’ behavior patterns. Additionally, kaizen events are unscientific by design, leaving a poor understanding of which changes actually produced the results observed and to what degree. Keep reading to dive into these topics a bit deeper.

Kaizen Events Cause a Costly and Destructive Disruption to the Flow of Operations

Achieving a steady state of operations can be difficult. There is a constant struggle to get and keep operations streaming smoothly. On the days when the team is lucky enough to get things flowing, like a river for example, it is highly undesirable to dam up the momentum and good fortune. Kaizen events are designed to do exactly that, put up a dam and stop the flow of value to the customer for long enough to make a batch of improvements. Of course the intent is to make an investment in a better business. This planned downtime and disruption to the flow of value to the customer comes at a great cost and risk. Kaizen event leaders feel immense pressure to produce results that justify the means. It is inevitable that not all kaizen events are a huge and immediate success; however I’ve never seen a kaizen leader report out that the event failed as doing so could lead to disgrace and possibly exile in most companies. This puts kaizen leaders in the position of a politician who has to spin up this activity into a big homerun hit win for the business, no matter the real impact.

Kaizen Events Cause an Unproductive Disruption to People’s Behavior

Above all things, humans are creatures of habit. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43% of human actions are enacted habitually while people are thinking about something else. Since human behavior is the number one predictor of business results, practically all kaizen events will require some changes in behavior. It takes anywhere between 18 and 250 consecutive days of completing an action for a new habit to calcify. One-off kaizen events are done too quickly and infrequently to deliver real behavior change and thus results are basically impossible to sustain. I’ve seen cases where standard work and audits were used by managers following kaizen events, which evolved into a dynamic of command-control-and-punish those who fail to comply. Neither managers or employees are happy with this culture or way of working.

Kaizen Events Break All the Rules of One-piece-flow

The week-long kaizen event was born out of a time when Lean Consultants parachuted in, shut down normal operations, “fixed” everything, and were back home in time to spend the weekend with the kids – leaving an enormous bill in their wake. This model worked brilliantly for the consultant or corporate Lean resource. During this event, anywhere between 5 and 15 “improvements” are made before normal business operations are reconvened. The results are measured and everyone celebrates profusely at the beautiful numbers presented in the Powerpoint deck. This all sounds wonderful, but there’s still a big problem. This approach violates all the rules of one-piece-flow. Participants walk away from the event have no idea for which specific changes produced the results observed. Everyone involved goes on believing that it was their idea that was a homerun hit as there is no way to validate the impact of each so-called improvement. Kaizen events are literally batch implementations of ideas and thus unscientific by default. We learned in middle school science class that the scientific approach calls for experimenting with one variable change at a time while controlling all others, then observe the result before making the next experiment. On the same note, each improvement is really just an experiment. You can’t know if it’s actually an improvement until after you’ve tried the idea and observed the result. Consequently, kaizen events fail to effectively develop people to better understand the processes that they operate. Any immediate spreadsheet results shown in the kaizen report inevitably declines back to the limited knowledge, assumptions, and understanding of the people operating the process.

Sinister Side of Kaizen Quote 1 - Impruver

A Better Way to Continuously Improve

Real business results are achieved and sustained as a function of people development. People don’t transform in just a week or even a month for that matter. It takes time, consistency, and sometimes some real tough love. It’s more like pouring molasses than dumping sugar. The transformation is often invisible to the naked eye but obvious to the infrequent visitor. A better way to improve business performance is to make small improvement daily. A 1% improvement daily for 365 days gets you 38X better results in a year. No amount of kaizen events will get you those kinds of results. This takes discipline, which is not developed in a week’s time. Two things result from an experiment, 1) the scientist either confirms what they believed to be true, meaning business results improve, or 2) they learn that their assumption is incorrect; in other words, they get smarter about their business. Both of these outcomes are good news. Thus, the more frequently one can experiment, the smarter they get, which translates into exponentially better business results and future experiments prove increasingly successful. This also disproves assumptions that this person might otherwise be using in every decision for years on end, resulting in stifled performance.

Daily Improvement respects the principle of one-piece-flow as one idea is tried at a time to validate the isolated impact on results. In true one-piece-flow fashion, one should not move on to the next improvement until sufficient learning and reflection is done on the last one. This is how you leverage each experiment for maximum learning and people development. Even if your company is married to step-change kaizen events, Daily Improvement is still needed to fight back the forces of entropy that will otherwise inevitably erode the gains made during the event. Sure, installing the latest state of the art machine or software in your company can be considered an improvement; but the anticipated business result is not realized until that technology is operating or being used at its planned capacity. This requires being persistent to work out every issue with it’s operation  until it reaches 100% of plan or beyond. Daily Improvement is the mechanism through which the gap can be closed and the process is continuously improved in between step-change improvements.

Remember the pushup story from earlier in this post. There was another time when I decided to challenge myself to reach 100 pushups per day in 100 days. I started with 1 pushup and each day, I simply added one more pushup than the day before. To my surprise, I never became sore. Disruption to the flow of my day was minimal. My strength and stamina increased gradually and so did the behavior pattern that grew into a daily ritual. I continued this practice long after the 100 days and often fall to the floor to belt out a few dozen at random times, even years after the challenge was complete.

Daily improvement is a better way to improve. With this discipline in place, all other tools, events, and practices have an exponentially greater chance of success.

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