Dueling Views on Role of Kaizen Events for Lean Transformation

By Jon Miller Published on December 18th, 2005

Dueling views on the role of kaizen events in a Lean transformation were expressed in the latest SME Lean newsletter.
George Koenigsaecker makes an attempt at answering the question Why aren’t there more lean successes? I just finished reading a review copy of Bill Waddell and Norm Bodek’s new book Rebirth of American Industry. Keep an eye out for it from PCS Press. This book does the best job of answering this question I’ve seen so far.
Back to the duel. “There are a couple of ways to answer this question” starts Koenigsaecker, and goes on to list three.
Koenigsaecker says that lean thinking is counter-intuitive and difficult to integrate into daily management behavior. He continues “we don’t actually believe that improvement can be continuous. We don’t actually believe that the whole point of a lean transformation should be to build a lean-learning culture, where continuous improvement is what we expect every day–forever.”
Excuse me? Who is this “we” who doesn’t believe that Lean transformation = improvement that continues forever? Maybe I’ve been drinking my own Kool-Aid – or have I been blessed with exceptional clients and staff around me?
He also cites the lack of “true lean sensei” such as the people who came from Toyota suppliers to form Shingijutsu and taught Koenigsaecker. “Here’s one of those leadership lessons: Lean tools take a long time to learn at a fundamental level.” The connection is that there’s not many sensei because this stuff is hard to learn, it takes a long time. Maybe that’s true for leadership folks.
We’ve found it’s quite easy to teach people lean fundamentals. It’s really a matter of how deep the grooves in your head are after decades of batch production experience, and how willing you are to give it up, be humble, and say “teach me”. To quote Edwards Deming, “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.” Spend most of your time pouring knowledge into open minds, and any time you have left prying open the closed ones.
“The basic learning element for TPS is the week-long Jishukin or Voluntary Study event–what we usually call a kaizen event…” This may have been true for the suppliers who went through a Lean transformation as part of the Toyota Autonomous Study Group 20 years ago, but it is not how Toyota would describe themselves. Ask a Toyota person “How many kaizen events do you do each year?” and you’ll get a puzzled look. It’s the same one you’ll get when you ask Toyota about their six sigma program.
I don’t want to claim to speak for Toyota. But by my observation the primary way Toyota does kaizen is by making their creative idea suggestion system a part of every employees’ and every managers’ job description. One Toyota manager who shared his wisdom with us during one of our benchmarking trips to Japan summed up the job description of every Toyota person: Follow Standard Work, and find a better way. How elegant.
Koenigsaecker says you need 100 kaizen events under your belt in the factory and office before you can be called a “sensei”. That’s 3 to 4 years in the life of an average kaizen consultant. We’re talking “just realizing how much there is to learn” not sensei.
I half agree with Koenigsaecker’s last point on the role of leadership. The leader should be more hands on with Lean transformation. If you are a C-level executive, regardless of the letters that follow the C and the particular focus this places on your day-to-day, what more important work can there be than doing kaizen? After all, you are trying to improve the company. But, leaders should definitely delegate. Build a volunteer army of lean people under you, or perhaps “missionaries” would be more appropriate. Make sure you have people who really get it, and trust your people. Don’t worry about all of the details of Lean not making sense to you, as long as you trust enough not to get in the way when things get counterintuitive.
Jamie Flinchbaugh takes nearly the opposite position to Koenigsaecker writing ‘Event lean’ prevents a company from becoming genuinely lean. “Event lean” is bad, says Flinchbaugh, because it can be turned off and on if it is seen as separate from the operation of the organization, and also because it does not engage everyone all of the time. He continues “event lean is separate, distinct, and disconnected, and never becomes an integral part of an organization.”
To set the record straight, kaizen, by definition is never bad. The “event lean” Flinchbaugh describes is a certainly a poor strategy for Lean transformation. Flinchbaugh’s bio places him at Chrysler prior to his consulting career. Koenigsaecker’s experience with “event lean” at Danaher and Hon Industries was no doubt considerably more successful.
How very different three people who fancy themselves voices on Lean can see the same topic. Take all of this with a grain of salt and keep in mind that the articles of Flinchbaugh, Koenigsaecker, and Miller (this blog) are all corporate PR. Like all corporate PR, the ultimate message is “buy our stuff” whether it’s a new book or consulting expertise. Think deeply on this topic, add your experience and make the best of this freely given advice.

  1. Kevin

    December 18, 2005 - 2:41 pm

    Great post. Between you, Bill Waddell, and Art Smalley (see his article on Superfactory.com), there are the beginnings of a movement to “recalibrate” the lean efforts in the U.S., and a course correction is needed.

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