How to Engage People in Kaizen

As always, thank you for your questions, comments and improvement suggestions. Today one of our readers shared via email a challenge with getting people engaged in kaizen. Whether it is an improvement suggestion system, a software system to track customer inquiries or a new forum for peer-to-peer communication, the success of any good idea is 95% dependent on how engaged people are with it and not the quality of the idea itself. For the people who have caught the kaizen bug it can be particularly frustrating to face people who cannot see that the solution to their problems is right in front of them for the taking. However, part of the problem in gaining full engagement from people can be due to the passion and conviction that the promoters of kaizen have. Sometimes we need to back off and make some space. Just as world class material and information flow systems are triggered by pull and not push, the flow of kaizen ideas and actions should be based on pull.

Find a way to make it their idea. There is a saying “people support what they create” and this is very true. When people generate or help to develop an idea they are more likely to be engaged and to support it. Many times the kaizen leader has a great idea, or sees a golden opportunity to apply a textbook lean concept to a process. The people working in that process may not see it that way. Rather than fight over an idea, grapple with resistance and cause people to disengage from kaizen it is best to clarify and agree on the problem and ask them for ideas. Even if it is 30% wrong, let them try it.

I remember one instance when the veteran mechanic in an aerospace firm was so used to not having their idea heard that it took him some time to realize that we were actually listening to them. When we said, “OK, let’s try your idea” they had to stop arguing, and there was a slightly comical and awkward moment when he nearly argued with us against his own idea.

Frame all actions as experiments and not permanent or irreversible changes This allows people to think that they are not really changing something, only “trying it”. In fact if the method is demonstrably better, it may become the new way. It is not meant as a trick but rather a reassurance that we will take people’s input each step along the way. The short path of kaizen is to “blitz” or make changes so fast that there is no time for resistance. While this may look exciting on a Friday afternoon, the feeling doesn’t always survive Monday. The long path is a path built on a series of experiments. Different situations call for both approaches.

When we told the mechanic in the example above, “Try it. If the kaizen doesn’t work, we can immediately put it back to the way it was” they were suspicious but saw that there was no choice but to give their idea a try. The result was not half bad, and he liked part of the change and did not want it put back to the old way. Soon he was taking the lead in making small changes that were not completely in line with the lean concept but were better than before. We got the ball rolling. We spent some time praising their 17% productivity improvement and then challenged them to 50% improvement. It was not long until this person was asking his colleagues about lean methods others were using to get to 50% improvement.

Be open to admitting you are wrong. Many kaizen leaders are so used to fighting to make positive changes that we become fighters. Even when we are wrong, we may be fighting out of habit. Even when we are right, sometimes it is good to let the other side win a few. Integrity and credibility require us to do what is in the best interest of the customer and the people who do the work, not necessarily what the textbook tells us or what we learned in class or online. Only after being right a time or two (the experiment worked), admitting that we were wrong, and being open to the ideas of others do you earn the respect to say “now let’s try it my way”.

Get on the same side of the problem. If possible this is really the first place to start. However people often take “trying to get on the same side of the problem” to mean “pull the other to my side” and that does not work unless the other side uncrosses their arms first. So it is best to try some things first together to demonstrate that you are on their side, or even better that both of you are on the customer’s side, and then expand on the common ground. It is really not necessary to fight if both sides of the argument are trying to solve the same issue, be it cost, safety, quality, or delivery. It is just a question of not arguing about how, but of trying something.

Break the task into smaller ones. When all of the above is done in some cases there may still be no action. Or there may be good initial engagement by the people directly involved in the kaizen, but less as the managers and support groups are asked to implement and complete the system changes needed to make the new method sustainable. Rather than insist that they give resources towards a major project, we may simply need to ask these people “What can you do today?” and the answer may be something extremely small. Thank people for the smallest task they perform towards kaizen. Ask this question every day. Slowly but inevitably you will make progress towards implementing the changes you need, both physically and in the culture. You will also gain a reputation for persistence, and eventually a measure of respect.
None of the above may work for you. Who knows? People are unpredictable. You will have to experiment. I am sure there is at least some small part of it that you can test today.

3 Comments

  1. Scott

    June 10, 2009 - 5:21 am

    Even if things are not going great, people get into their comfort zone so any change will be met with resistance to get it back into equilibrium even though at that point in time it is chaos. So why must we make change, it is to ensure we meet the needs of the customer. It is the stakeholder on the execution side who hold the key to change as they are ultimately the ones that have to make it work. So it really is paramount that it is supported and driven from the lowest level. Normally good results feed a bias towards further change to get better results. The key is slow and methodical as you will never get to perfection anyway as the environment is always changing. So drop the suit and get out to the floor and talk to the most important team you have, the individuals who actual make the product. Hear their ideas and get them to have ownership of change and reward the results.

  2. gretchen j. koch

    June 20, 2009 - 11:18 am

    Dear Jon: your article and suggestions are very interesting. You have two typos – ssytem and to make”he” new. I think you meant the. What do you think of the Gemba Academy? I’m new to this field and very interested in learning more about kaizen. Sincerely, Gretchen J. Koch