A Deeper Meaning with Kaizen

Gemba Kaizen, Quality Circles, Kaizen Events, Rapid Process Improvement Workshops and Value Stream Mapping. These are all improvement tactics some organizations use to fix problems at the Gemba and remove waste from their Value Streams. Kaizen is used in many places as a change management system and it can be a great engine for organizational change over time.

Kaizen is a Japanese word that means “Change for the better.” Kaizen’s origin can be traced back to the Shewart/Deming Cycle (PDSA)—or as we call it today the Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust (PDCA) Cycle—and to a 1950 Ford Employee Suggestion program witnessed by Eiji Toyoda of Toyota. From The Lean Strategy by Ballé, Jones, Chaize and Fiume, we learn that Kaizen emerged after much trial and error to the following: "In the Toyota tradition, Kaizen comes in essentially two forms: (1) Problem solving to return a situation to standard and (2) studying a process to improve on the standard."

In his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Robert Maurer talks about how innovation (large changes) can trigger resistance and “Fight or Flight” instinct in individuals as they try to change. Kaizen (many small incremental changes) doesn’t trigger the same response and because of this can affect great change for those who practice Continuous Improvement.

Many Lean tools are examples of Kaizen used in very specific ways. A3 Thinking, Single-Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED), Total Productive Maintenance (TPM); and from Lean Construction, The Last Planner System, are all examples of Kaizen based tools. Kaizen IS the Continuous Improvement part of the Lean equation. Lean is Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

So, is Kaizen just a problem-solving tool? Is it a way to fix those things the frontline workers are always screwing up? Is it a way to fix the broken processes management has pushed down on the workers? In addition to practicing daily Kaizen at the Gemba, some organizations have Kaizen events as often as every month to try and improve their business processes. While many of the participants find value in the Kaizen experience, organizations often have trouble sustaining improvements over time. Why? What's going on that could be limiting the sustainability of Kaizen as it is mostly practiced today? How could potentially hundreds of improvements somehow not bring about effective positive change within an organization? Kaizen initiatives often get off to a great start and many great improvements are made. It appears that great strides have been made but eventually their improvement initiatives lose steam. Why?

What we see as great strides are really just the low hanging fruit, the easy very visible changes. People aren’t as willing to make the hard changes without complete trust that their leaders will have their back if things go sideways. Many times, the workers feel Kaizen is just another new flavor of the month pushed down by management that will cause them more work. Leaders oftentimes don’t understand their role in Kaizen.

The answer to making Kaizen effective is Lean Thinking. Lean Thinking is to Respect for People as Kaizen is to Continuous Improvement. When frontline workers take control of deciding how best to do their work with a goal of optimizing the whole, Kaizen becomes a verb—an action word. When leaders start to understand Kaizen isn’t an improvement process but a learning system, they also start to understand that to lead is to teach. A leader’s role in Kaizen is to support and teach their people, to create an environment where failures are celebrated for the lessons learned and the knowledge gained. Leaders must understand they are Non-Value Added, and unless they can help their people be more valuable, there is no reason for their role to exist.

Lean Thinking changes Kaizen from a production mindset to a learning mindset. When we apply Lean Thinking to Kaizen, our critical thinking skills, our creative thinking skills, and our socio-political skills are all enhanced by the process. Lean Thinking requires an outward mindset. It requires us to be open to collaboration with others, to think and see in new ways and embrace diversity of thought and ideas. Lean Thinking requires that we eliminate waste because waste is disrespectful, and it removes meaning from people’s work. Kaizen seeks to reduce overburdening, which reduces variation, which reduces waste.

To find a deeper meaning with Kaizen, you must change the way you think. You have to teach yourself to see in a new way. You must be open to change and new ideas. Workers must use all of their talents to better their work and they will find their work more fulfilling. Leaders must embrace servant leadership and support the Gemba in every way, and they will learn more than they ever thought they could.

“The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people's creativity. People don't go to Toyota to 'work' they go there to 'think'.” Taiichi Ohno

“The Kaizen Philosophy assumes that our way of life - be it our working life, our social life, or our home life - deserves to be constantly improved.” Masaaki Imai

Kaizen is an amazing Continuous Improvement tool. Organizations can make many improvements by involving those closest to the work in designing the changes. However, for lasting, meaningful, and impactful improvements, Kaizen must include Lean Thinking just as the whole concept of Lean and Continuous Improvement must include Respect for People to be effective.

Stop limiting your creativity by your thoughts and actions because you deserve to have your way of life improved, and Lean Thinking in conjunction with Kaizen is the way to make it happen!

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