Tame the Hedgehog, Name it Kaizen

A reader e-mailed me a couple of days ago and said “I personally don’t believe all problems can be solved by a group of workers gathered together doing Kaizen” and went on to make a convincing case that specialized knowledge is needed to solve technical problems and when there are multiple factors causing a problem a different approach is needed than kaizen. He made the point I have been trying to make for the last few postings on Industrial Engineering, Human Resource Development and Lean manufacturing.
Perhaps kaizen is a polarizing word. It’s not a word native to English, and means different things to different people. The Wikipedia definition of kaizen is actually pretty good. By nature of a Wiki it’s subject to editing and constant change so I can’t say the definition you read will be the same one I read. The emphasis on respect for people, system thinking, process and results focus, as well as a blame-free approach are key characteristics to kaizen.
Whoever last edited this Wiki also felt it necessary to add “Kaizen” is the correct usage. “Kaizen event” or “kaizen blitz” are incorrect usage.” Limited perhaps, but not necessarily incorrect. In the broadest sense kaizen is human creativity and innovation in solving problems. Whether we provide a product or a service, whether we sweep floors or sit in board rooms this is essentially what we go to work to do. Rapid improvement (kaizen event) teams are very effective, but should be combined with “soft” kaizen on a daily basis both as small, local, non-technical incremental improvement efforts and also as “hard” kaizen activity involving six sigma, DOE and 3P tools.
This week I have been generalizing the “hard vs. soft” or “human creativity vs. technical expertise” or “innovation vs. process” under umbrella categories of Industrial Engineering and Human Resource Development in order to make a point that two or more perspectives are necessary to succeed at Lean manufacturing.
I don’t believe an organization should align itself too strongly with any one of kaizen teams, six sigma, Lean manufacturing, Industrial Engineering, suggestion systems, human resource development, TPM programs, material control systems, marketing & sales focus, financial models or any single solution. Balance is important.
I have a personal dislike of polarization and extreme viewpoints. It’s a fairly strong dislike (you might even say polar, and I find this irony amusing). I am curious about the opposing viewpoint and I want to learn from others who have different experiences than I have. I have learned the hard way that finding harmony between seemingly opposing viewpoints is often the key to success. I’ve tried to make this point while discussing Industrial Engineering, Human Resource Development and their impact on the success Lean manufacturing.
We are being encouraged to attach ourselves to simple, even polarized positions by popular media and popular management literature. People respond to clear and simple messages that are repeated over and over rather than to complex, multi-part messages that require long attention spans and deep thought to fully grasp. This may be why titles such as Innovative Sales Leadership sell so well.
Read practically any recent author of a Lean manufacturing book wrapped around a particular theme (as opposed to a broad examination of TPS) and they will appear to be convinced that their approach is the answer and theirs is the unique and essential perspective missing from Lean today. People take an ownership over what they create, so this is no surprise. There is nothing wrong with simple and powerful ideas, as long as you have many of them.
I like Jim Collins’ book Good to Great a lot. It’s built around not one but seven simple and powerful ideas. It’s a book that comes at the question of effective business management almost completely from the “soft” side, or the human resource development aspect. I fully agree with the importance his ideas on of the need for humility in a leader, the need to get the right people in an organization first, confronting the facts, having a culture of discipline, using technology to accelerate good processes, and getting alignment in the organization by having everyone push on the “flywheel” in one direction. If you’ve counted, that’s six.
The one idea I have trouble with is the Hedgehog Concept. The contrast is between the wily fox that tries many tricks to catch the hedgehog but is always unsuccessful because the hedgehog knows one trick – roll up into a spiky ball so that the fox gets not a tasty mouthful of hedgehog but a painful mouthful of spikes. The point Mr. Collins makes is that you will be more successful if you can be the best at the world at one thing, be passionate about it, and have it make you money, rather than try to do too much and be unfocused.
The hedgehog is at risk of being road kill without the ability to lift his head, look around and consider that rolling up into a spiky ball may not work against all dangers (such as a passing truck). Passion is a very satisfying but subjective measure. “What you can be best in the world at” is difficult to gauge until you are actually the best, since it is a result and not a process. Even the “economic engine” is market-driven, so in the end you have very little control over any of these three elements.
Pursuing your passion, being successful and being recognized for it are wonderful things that people should strive for. But I think Mr. Collins is missing the Industrial Engineering aspect of leadership. Both “Confront the Brutal Facts” and “A Culture of Discipline” and “Technology Accelerators” can be seen as more technical aspects of leadership, but the author is reluctant to give these a name.
“A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at” Mr. Collins says in his book. He also says “Good is the enemy of great”. In kaizen we say “the enemy of better is best”. Although it seems wrong, kaizen thinking says people should not strive to be the best in the world at something, but to be better. Toyota is afraid of the complacency that comes with being the best and strives to be better.
From a practical standpoint and for the vast majority of people who are not business leaders, it is more valuable to ask “what can I be better at” than to ask “what can I be the best in the world at”. Passion is important, but it can blind you to what is necessary. It can blind you to the other viewpoints. Passion is not rational or fact based.
“We should only do those things that we can get passionate about” writes Mr. Collins. That’s the ideal. From an Industrial Engineering standpoint we should also only flow things one at a time paced to customer demand based on a pull signal. Most companies would go belly up if they followed this advice immediately. There is a lot that needs to happen to ready an organization before it can become a Lean enterprise or achieve the ideal.
We all have to do many things on a daily basis that we are not passionate about. Many of these things are necessary. The point is that we are most successful when our personal goals and interests are aligned with others in the team and those of the entire organization. It’s a useful habit to ask “why?” many times and do kaizen whenever you find that you are not passionate about what you are doing. Remove the obstacles, frustrations, variables, and wastes that make you lose your passion or interest in what you are doing. It might seem odd to apply the scientific method to something as “soft” as passion, but kaizen is also about personal improvement as it is about business improvement.
The wild hedgehog listens only to itself (your passion, what you understand that you can be the best at) and is fortunate when these things have an overlap with what makes you money. The domesticated or tamed hedgehog is able to “confront the brutal facts” even about oneself, and perhaps take a different path to success.
Mr. Collins is against giving improvement initiatives a name, claiming that a program dies when named. Arguably the most successful automobile manufacturer in the world credits something named kaizen with its success. There are banners in the factory reminding people “Good Thinking, Good Products” among other slogans and named initiatives of the quarter. Perhaps the problems Mr. Collins’ research team observed were not the risk of giving a good program a name and watching it die but having a bad program, named or not.
Tame the hedgehog. Name it kaizen.

1 Comment

  1. Don M.

    May 21, 2006 - 6:08 pm

    Jon,
    Again I’m new to your site and just scanning through but had to stop and read this article …. My views on Kaizen are vary similar to yours and believe more in Constant & Never Ending improvement both on a personal level as well as for a business pursuit.
    “Good to Great” I read just last year for the first time and really liked the book. I have put it on my highly recommend list of books to read. One view point I may offer though from your comments on the hedgehog is this ….. Passion is based on emotion and when we get passionate about something things usually get done. The concept I think Mr. Collins was trying to convey is that we can’t be everything for everyone … so why not concentrate your efforts on what you can do the best at and then pursue perfection …. pursuit is a journey with a True North Understanding and Like Toyota we must never become complacent with the location we are at but push forward to deliver the best value to our “Customer”