I read a whitepaper recently that touted the benefits of a kaizen process. The paper presented an example from a British company where an improvement project resulted in an annual savings to the organization of £1.2 million. The point of the paper was to demonstrate the type of improvement that companies could achieve with an effective improvement process.
The unfortunate part of a story like this is that it creates the expectation that implementing a kaizen process will lead to million dollar improvements. This is not the essence of a kaizen process and often leads to skepticism or disappointment and eventual abandonment of the effort.
I agree with you. Kaizen is about the small stuff, the details. Lean implementation involves the big stuff too, but it is not Kaizen.
On a rainy day many years ago, I remember walking onto the marble lobby of the R&D lab of a major company that did not practice Kaizen. Within one second, my wet shoe slipped and I banged my knee on the marble. Marble looks great. That it is slippery when wet is a detail that had been considered neither at design time nor later. The same lobby had a luxurious restroom with a door that did not automatically unlock when you left, so that you could leave it both vacant and locked. The big-picture design of this lobby was fine, but the details were botched.
The problem with details is that there are too many for managers, engineers or architects to worry about. This is why you need Kaizen. You need the help of the people who are affected by these details to fix them. When, in a company, you notice small things being done in clever ways, it is a telltale sign of Kaizen activity. It enhances skills, builds confidence, and improves morale, but the key reason you do it is to make sure sloppy details don’t hurt your business.
This is what Kaizen means in Japan. Wrapping tinfoil around the feet of a welding fixture to make it easier to clean is Kaizen; privatizing the National Railroad, Kaikaku. Not only is Kaizen a Japanese word, but the reason we pay attention to it is the success of Kaizen in factories and other businesses in Japan.
Terms like “Kaizen Event” or “Kaizen Blitz” mislead because they use the term Kaizen but what these activities do is not Kaizen. The main problem is that, by monopolizing attention in the US, these terms make it nearly impossible to promote, organize, or even discuss actual Kaizen activity.