Kaizen Teams & the Wisdom of Crowds

By Jon Miller Published on July 7th, 2005

Every now and then a very intelligent manager or engineer will question the whole approach of putting a kaizen team together to spend 3 to 5 days working on a problem when the solution is ‘obvious’ to this very smart person. Putting aside the question of why the problem hasn’t been solved already if it’s ‘obvious’, we still need to reassure these experts and specialists that cross-functional kaizen teams are a better approach to finding and implementing solutions than the ‘lone ranger’ approach.
Until recently, our case for kaizen events and kaizen teams has been “Trust us. This works.” In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations” by James Surowiecki the author shows that the ‘collective intelligence’ of a group of individuals is superior to that of individual experts. This has relevance to why kaizen teams work effectively.
The author illustrates the ‘wisdom of crowds’ effect through many interesting examples such as competing in TV game shows, voting for political candidates, and maximizing stock market returns. While I would like to run a vector analysis on the data to make sure it holds up to six sigma standards of accuracy, from experience I agree with the author’s conclusions.
One of the features of a successful kaizen team is that it is made up of people from varying disciplines. It is a true cross-functional team. Kaizen teams routinely achieve breakthrough results on problems that smaller groups of experts or specialists have been struggling with for years.
Part of this is that Lean manufacturing principles implemented during kaizen events are simple yet powerful and proven to be effective. Part of it is the cross-functional nature of the kaizen teams that tap into this ‘wisdom of crowds’.
The reason for cross-functional kaizen teams is twofold. First, you can’t have all of the team members from the target area of the kaizen event. If you do you will shut the process down. Everyone will be on the team, nobody will be doing any production.
Second, the diversity of experience and knowledge brings differing perspectives and information. People from outside the area are less swayed by a single opinion leader such as an experienced worker or supervisor. A variety of ideas and opinions, good and bad, tend to balance each other out by providing a wider range of options to test. The fact-based, hands-on, trial & improve approach of kaizen events insure that decisions are made rationally so the group can all agree which solution is better.
There is a rule of thumb that says a kaizen team should be made of people 1/3rd who are directly from the area being targeted by the kaizen event, another 1/3rd from customer or supplier processes (upstream and downstream) and the final 1/3rd from people completely outside of the area with possibly no direct link to that process.
This mix of people helps to insure that the “Wisdom of Crowds” effect can happen on a smaller scale. Instead of an engineering process flow redesign being done by a team of only engineers, the team membership is broadened to include people who will have other ideas, opinions, and questions. This prevents polarized opinions and coming to pre-conceived conclusions.
So if you’re one of those smarter people who has the answer most of the time, pick up the book and consider how tapping into the collective insight of cross functional teams can help you make better decisions. Better yet, experience it by joining a kaizen team.

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