Volume 1, Issue 2 - Fall 2016

The anatomy of an effective kaizen

By Dave Hogg. 

In lean, the term kaizen is made up of two separate Sino-Japanese words: Kai, meaning ‘change’ and zen, defined as ‘for the better’ — compounded quite literally as ‘change for the better.’

It is a methodology and mindset, which must be sustainable. When that philosophy is implemented in the workplace, it triggers everyone to continuously look for small ways to improve processes. Doing 1,000 things one per cent better is far more advantageous than doing a single thing 1,000 per cent better.

A quick history

The Second World War gave birth to Training Within Industry (TWI), a system of standardized work that reverse-telescoped the duration of employee training — a necessity given the historic need for increased productivity.

Through TWI, some critical training was cut from five years to six months, with identical competence. After the war, this approach helped evolve kaizen thinking into a powerful, common sense tool to rapidly solve specific problems.

At first, kaizens took weeks or months to complete. Many decades later, in the 1980s, the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) saw the value of kaizen, but knew it had to be repackaged for the fast-paced North American market. So, the 4-5-day intensive process that followed was nicknamed kaizen blitz because of its association with the word Blitzkrieg. The condensed duration was accepted as significant enough to impact meaningful change — in cutting cycle times, reducing waste, and accelerating throughput velocity.

What a kaizen is and isn’t

A kaizen is a launching pad for the culture of continuous improvement. It is a proven process that implements rapid change while building employee ownership. And it focuses on brainpower, not dollars.

A kaizen is not a one-shot deal, or a tool for major projects. Nor is it something employees do in a vacuum, or without management support or empowerment.

How to run a kaizen

It is amazing to see the power five to seven practitioners — each with their lifetime of skills and experience — can unleash by executing a kaizen with the guidance of an experienced facilitator. Most team members know where the improvements are, but may have never been asked or felt their input was wanted.

Start day one of the kaizen in a training or lunch room (on the shop floor works, too!), allowing folks to get to know each other. Communicate a vision of the problem they will solve, and the process they will use to attack it. Equip participants with the lean tools that may be required, such as plan-do-check-act, 5S, the five whys, the fishbone diagram, and value stream mapping. Even if your team is well-versed in these tools, review them to establish a common language.

On day two, head to the site of the problem, where the team will observe, investigate, and both gather and measure data surrounding the existing process. Reconvene to debrief on the findings and brainstorm solutions.

On the third and fourth days, experiment onsite. The testing of multiple possible solutions allows the team to accurately gauge improvement results. These are hardworking ‘pizza days.’ The final hours should be dedicated to implementing the settled-upon solution.

Dedicate the last day to completing a written report and presenting the team’s findings and solution to management. This presentation should include suggestions for follow-up kaizens, descriptions of the lessons learned, and a 30- or 60-day schedule for items not completed during the week.

A final word

Enhancing competitiveness in an uncertain marketplace means getting serious about systematic improvement. Kaizens are a great way — a better way — to inspire real improvement with minimal investment. Remember, we’ve all made efforts to improve at one time or another — and, if we hadn’t, many of the companies that exist today would not be with us.

Kaizens are now applied in all kinds and sizes of organizations. And although they are not complicated, it is wise to arrange for a facilitator to start. When you do, be sure to tap one of your best people to shadow that facilitator and bring the know-how in-house.

Dave Hogg is one of Canada’s premier thought leaders on lean manufacturing, and is editor of the Accelerate the Journey newsletter — a free e-newsletter delivered across North America each month. Register to receive your copy at www.acceleratethejourney.com.