When to Use “Kaizen Events” to Achieve and Sustain Results

This is a perennial topic in all groups related to Lean.  In the TPS principles and practice discussion group on LinkedInBertrand Olivar and Kris Hallan recently started new discussions on the sustainability of Kaizen event results and on the means of achieving them. Most contributors hold extreme positions, the majority saying that Kaizen events are a panacea, and a growing minority that they are worthless.

In this you-are-with-us-or-against-us atmosphere, it is a challenge to get a hearing for the nuanced position I hold, which I summarize as follows:

  1. Kaizen events are not part of TPS
  2. Kaizen events are a valuable tool
  3. Kaizen events are not a panacea.
  4. Content should dictate how projects are managed, not the other way around.

Because it is a recurring topic, I have already accumulated the a trail of posts about it, that are referenced at the end.

1. The Consequences of Vocabulary Engineering

As Larry Miller pointed out in the discussion, “Kaizen Events” are not part of TPS and the term is a made-in-America misnomer. I think “Kaizen Blitz” is an even more bizarre combination of Japanese and German words, since it literally means “lightning strike of continuous improvement. As Steve Milner pointed out, Kaizen Events have their uses, but the reason they caught on like wild fire in the US is the promise of instant gratification. Of course, if Kaizen Events are all you do, they don’t deliver on that promise, because there are so many other things you need to do to make sustainable improvements that don’t fit in that rigid format. Try standardizing the heights of 300 dies, for example.

Vocabulary engineering has consequences. A wrong label that becomes popular crowds out the real thing. One key reason so few companies actually practice Kaizen in the US is that their managers believe they do, because they are running Kaizen events by the dozen in every plant every year. The French have done even worse: by calling such workshops “Hoshin Events,” they have made it impossible to communicate with French managers about Hoshin planning.

2. The “Kaizen Event” as a Project Management Template

Adopting a policy of doing all your improvement work through Kaizen Events is choosing how you are going to run projects before knowing what they are. It is putting the cart before the horse. You should decide which projects you want to undertake first, and then choose an appropriate implementation approach based on project content.

If it is a good fit, you can do it as a Kaizen event. If it is too small, too large, requires the cooperation of too many entities, or has built-in time constraints, you should use a different method.

Simultaneously making tangible improvements and learning new skills is the purpose of continuous improvement. The real question is of when and why use “Kaizen events” as a project management templates, as opposed to others, such as suggestion systems, circles, or task forces. Again, the problem with many organizations is not that they do “Kaizen events” but that they don’t do anything else, regardless of need.

3. The Purpose of “Kaizen Events”

Kris Hallan cited the following story from Lean Thinking:

In the story, WireMold is wanting to bring in Shingijutsu consultants to help them. Shingijutsu came by to see if they would be good partners. To test this, they told them that their machine cell was moving backwards and that they needed to move the machine to the other side of the cell. Wiremold made the move that day and this showed the consultants that they were willing to make change. They partnered up and the rest is history. This strikes me because I probably have 1 in 10 leaders who would/could move that equipment that quickly regardless of how well convinced they were that it was a good idea. They would see that type of change as being something that takes time and requires approvals. They would be focusing on a culture of CYA. This is the main purpose of a “kaizen event” in my mind.

The example Kris brings up,  of changing the direction of flow in a cell, is interesting because the Shingijutsu counterclockwise zealotry really is an appeal to faith rather than science. Even at Toyota, there is left-to-right flow in production lines. When challenged about this, I heard Chihiro Nakao say that counterclockwise flow was better because people were right-handed and lathes always had the headstock on the left side. Well, obviously, not everybody is righthanded and, a month after hearing this, I noticed mirror-image lathes in a machine shop, with one having the headstock on the right side. And what about machines other than lathes, like a machining center?

The direction of flow is not a matter of consensus in Japan. For example, you find clockwise cells in the works of Kenichi Sekine and Hitoshi Takeda. And I have heard the exact same argument made for clockwise cells that the Shingijutsu people make for the opposite. What my own experience tells me is that the direction of flow doesn’t matter that much and should not be a deciding factor in line design. I see it on the level of deciding whether to cut a soft-boiled egg on the small end or the big end.

I have never seen any substantiation of the claim that counterclockwise flow is always 40% more productive than clockwise. But, if you have people move machines based on that claim, it both demonstrates and establishes your power. Personally, I would never recommend a change unless I had good reasons to believe it is an improvement. I don’t need proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but I need some evidence.  Personal experience of having done it in a previous, similar project is best; a trusted colleague’s experience is second best; logic is third best. A logical analysis of the situation may tell you that something should work, but the risk of having overlooked a critical factor is higher than when you go by experience. On the other hand, if you always went be experience only, you would never innovate.

4. Projects that Can Be “Kaizen Events”

“Kaizen Events” have their uses, and I have facilitated a number of them. A “Kaizen Event” usually is a three-month project, with 6 weeks of planning and preparation, 1 week of intense activity, and another 6 weeks to complete follow-up action items.

To be successful, don’t give short shrift to planning and preparation. In particular, the choice of the subject of the event is key.Choose a subject for which:

  1. All the work can be completed within the week of intense activity.
  2. All the participants already have the requisite skills, or can learn them on the first day of the intensive week.
  3. The work has tangible performance improvements at stake.
  4. The project is a further learning opportunity for the participants.
  5. The target area of the project has a sufficient remaining economic life.

Then, of course, the week of intense activity must be properly managed, and I found the main challenge to be making sure that all participants have something useful to do at all times. If you are not careful, you will have a few people working themselves ragged and some spectators who, through no fault of their own, do not see clearly how they can contribute.

The follow-up action items are the Achille’s heel of the approach. Whatever enthusiasm is worked up during the intensive week is no longer there for mopping up activities, even though they may be essential to sustain the improvements. That’s why you need to choose your battles so that there are, if not zero follow-up items, at least as few as possible. And then management must pay special attention to making sure they are not forgotten.

5. What Good Does a “Kaizen Event” Do?

Can you “eliminate waste” and see performance drop? The very idea strikes me as absurd. Think of everyday life. When you tell anyone that they are wasting their time in doing something, it means that nothing would get worse if they didn’t do it. Conversely, if anything would get worse as a result of them not doing it, they are not wasting their time. This is true for Erma Bombeck’s housewife ironing diapers as well as IT departments printing and distributing reports no one reads.

We use “waste” as a translation of “muda” (無駄), which means “unnecessary.” An activity is therefore waste if, and only if, not doing it would have no adverse effect on any dimension of performance. If you stop overproducing, it doesn’t degrade productivity, quality, delivery, safety, or morale. Likewise with eliminating excess transportation, double-handling, etc.

The American literature on Lean contains the definition of waste as “activity that does not add value to the product.” I suppose that the notion of waste just being what you don’t need to do is uncomfortably simple when selling to MBAs. You have to endow it with intellectual depth that just isn’t there. It sounds great in PowerPoint but, if you try to apply it, you end up telling people who do useful work like document control on process specs that their job is waste because it doesn’t modify the product. It’s nonsense because, if you stop doing document control, your quality goes down quickly.

The “muda” perspective, on the other hand, is operational. You can practically tell whether eliminating an activity degrades performance in any way. As a result, there is no such thing as eliminating waste in a way that worsens performance. If you make performance worse, you may in fact have introduced more waste.

If you make people’s jobs easier, their productivity and quality increase in perfectly measurable fashion. If you eliminate literal pain points, you reduce the frequency of accidents and repetitive stress injuries, which is also perfectly measurable.  Tangible improvements don’t have to be in the language of money. They don’t have to be cost savings. They can be in the language of things that is spoken on the shop floor, but they must exist.

Laura Kriska, the young American who became the accidental office lady at Honda headquarters in Tokyo in the early 1990s, managed to get Honda to stop requiring female employees to wear uniforms at the office. It was a Kaizen project, organized as a “New Honda circle.” The circle presented its findings to Honda managers in terms of tangible improvements as a result of eliminating these uniforms,and they got approval.

Uniforms at Honda’s Marysville, OH plant (IndustryWeek)

6. Earlier Posts on These Topics

As indicated above, this is a perennial topic, and I have already posted the following about it:

6.1. Kaizen Events/Blitzes

6.2. QC circles

6.3. Waste Elimination and Performance Improvement


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