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The Four Elements for Sustaining Kaizen

By Jon Miller Published on February 19th, 2005

One of the most frequent questions we encounter form our customers and prospects is the issue of how to sustain the gains made through kaizen and other continuous improvement efforts. In a recent discussion among our consultants, we came to the agreement that the three traditional answers were inadequate and did not really get to the root of the problem.
First, management attention and commitment are essential. With the pressures to produce competing with the need to take the time to make sure improvements are being sustained, supervisors and managers often opt to make their numbers first. This is a case of ‘you improve what you measure’. You must measure the sustaining of kaizen results.
Second, workforce involvement is a must. Human beings resist change when it is done to them or imposed upon them. Human beings embrace change when they are involved in making the change and it is meaningful to them. Simply, you value what you create. Kaizen events must be designed and managed for this.
Third, there must be a clearly defined answer to “what’s in it for me?” for all of the stakeholders in the process where kaizen is done. The whole point of kaizen is to reduce Muda (waste) in a profitable way, making the job safer and easier. Quantifying and communicating these benefits is key element to helping people see the need for sustaining the gains.
Yet even when all of this is in place, kaizen will not always sustain. There may be a variety of reasons for this but in our experience one stands out most. Too often improvements are being made in environments where there are no clear standards. The process method may vary, depending on the person. The settings for a machine may vary between work teams and between shifts.
We have encountered organizations which are afraid to establish clear standards for fear that it will limit creativity among their best employees. This is particularly prevalent in engineering organizations, sales teams, and highly skilled machine operators. What these managers are really saying is that “My processes are out of control. I must rely on the in-depth knowledge and skill of very smart people to make it work.”
This creativity needs to be used to set and improve standards, not to meet them. It is a misuse of skill and creativity to solve problems that are preventable through the establishment of standards. Once the variables are scientifically understood through a kaizen team effort or a six sigma process, this creates a basis for breakthrough improvements by these creative and skilled people.
Taiichi Ohno said “Where there is no standard there can be no kaizen.” Part of every kaizen activity must be the establishment of the new standard or “the best known method at this point”. The standard is not fixed forever, and becomes the basis for future improvement.
For repetitive processes this takes the form of Standard Work (aka Standardized Work) defining Takt Time, Work Sequence, and Standard Work in Process. For less repetitive work it may be a clearly defined process with visual work instructions and Pokayoke (error proofing) to ensure built in quality.
The insistence on standards is the fourth element for sustaining kaizen. Like the other three elements, it is a deeply human issue and often requires a cultural shift in the organization. In the end, successful and sustained kaizen is more about changing behaviors than changing physical things.

  1. Paul Wagar

    March 9, 2006 - 12:51 pm

    Always enjoy your web site. I do lean consulting and sometimes look at your site for a little boost when a project is moving to slow.

  2. Jon Miller

    March 10, 2006 - 8:51 am

    Hi Paul,
    I’m happy that you enjoy the site. Whenever a kaizen isn’t going well I try to remember the words the writer and naturalist Hal Borland:
    “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
    It seems to work for me.

  3. iwan suwandi

    March 28, 2006 - 7:34 am

    it’s good

  4. Regina Costa

    August 24, 2007 - 9:39 am

    Very interesting and very logic point of view! Your 4 points will help me with my clients, no doubt! thanks!

  5. Salve K sanjeev

    September 7, 2007 - 10:59 pm

    I worked with Mr Yama Guchi, learned detail PM Pillar ,still I got in depth knowledge from this site.

  6. Mangesh Valmik Borse

    August 28, 2009 - 2:59 am

    Don’t make temporary kaizens is one of the 5 don’ts said by Mr. Mizota san the TPM Guru. make kaizens those can be sustained, so always make permanent kaizens.
    Mangesh Borse
    Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd,

  7. Jon Miller

    August 28, 2009 - 10:36 am

    Hi Mangesh
    I am not sure I fully agree with Mr. Mizota. All kaizens are temporary. There will always be a better way. Any change should be an experiment, which if successful is set as the standard until a better way is established.
    Ideally all kaizens would be sustainable, but sometimes we make kaizens that are good for a certain period of time and then fail, or are no longer supportable. Conditions change. We need to learn from these failures and adapt.
    In the beginning the safe approach may be to do only sustainable, permanent kaizens. However as you advance in your skills it is necessary to challenge yourselves towards the occasional kaizen that you suspect is a stretch, and learn as an organization when these kaizens fail.

  8. R.Balasubramanian

    September 28, 2009 - 10:39 pm

    Dear Friends,
    As per JIPM TPM KAI is for Good and ZEN is for change. So we can take this in two ways. Please make good changes or Please change for good things to happen. According to me Kaizen is a Attitude change philosophy when we go through the KAIZEN Process. As a TPM co- ordinator selected by JIPM i wish to share my thoughts on KAIZEN.Kaizen always starts with a story (How the Problem occurs or what is happened or happening in the plant or earth)The story to be carefully told as we are telling stories to our children or hearing stories from our grandma and grandpa.At the end of the story a question is asked to understand the moral of the story (Which always will be a catalyst for attitude change). So make kaizen stories to prevent worries.
    With best wishes,

  9. Jon Miller

    September 29, 2009 - 10:02 am

    Thank you for your comment. I believe you mean KAI is for change and ZEN is for good. This is the correct Japanese. The analogy of kaizen as a story that teaches a moral is good, but not complete without action taken as a result to remove the source of the worries.
    Best wishes,

  10. Brad

    February 25, 2010 - 8:27 am

    Great article. Keep in mind you’re not done when a successful process is standardized. You need to establish a process to ensure the people follow the standard. Too often a standard is created, but without enforcement, people will stray from it.

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