Jim Womack Interview in IndustryWeek – Nation Full fo Kaizen Consultants

There is a very long and insightful interview with Jim Womack available at the IndustryWeek online magazine titled Thought Leaders — Lean On Me (Full Transcript). At over 7,000 words the discussion ranges from a history Womack and Jones’ discovery of what Lean was to their comparison of Japanese automotive companies to the future of manufacturing in China to the shift in attention from Lean tools to Lean management, and even an answer to the inevitable “after Lean has been applied to service, what’s next?” question.
A Jim Womack quote that caught my attention was:
We’ve got now a nation full of kaizen consultants doing kaizen, and almost all of that kaizen would be unnecessary if the production process had been laid out the right way the first time, which is what Toyota does.
Do we have a nation full of kaizen consultants? Perhaps this is a figure of speech, or Dr. Womack was simply making a point, but I believe there are in fact still far too few people professionally doing or teaching others how to do kaizen in this country.
And I question his thinking here. By the logic that “almost all of that kaizen would be unnecessary” if processes were laid out right the first time, the Toyota way, we would expect very little kaizen at Toyota since it would be “unnecessary.” Yet that is not what we observe. Toyota generates a significant amount kaizen activity in the form of QC circle activities, employee suggestions and problem solving A3s, decades after having their processes “laid out the rigtht way.”
There are more than a few kaizen consultants whose work is to facilitate “learning by doing” for their clients, rather than to fix poorly designed processes. Just as at Toyota the problem solving process (kaizen) is a means of people development, kaizen consulting is equal parts fixing the thinking the resulted in the poor processes, not just fixing the poor processes.
Perhaps the “nation full of kaizen consultants” Dr. Womack observes is in fact mostly focused on correcting process flows and fixing poor processes, a statement of the quality and depth of kaizen activity he has observed. But kaizen consultants do not stop doing kaizen even if the process was laid out “right the first time.” We never stop.

9 Comments

  1. Tom

    November 21, 2007 - 9:49 am

    Perhaps he was just venting at the kaizen consultant/snake oil salesmen who promise a cure for every production ill with “kaizen”, then fail to do anything except take their client’s money and give real Kaizen a black eye.

  2. Erik

    November 21, 2007 - 10:47 am

    Dr. Womack is a very knowledgeable man and has a good understanding of lean/TPS. Though I have often been frustrated with his statements of, “This is what’s wrong and you all should do [blank] to fix it.” It seems to change from time to time (nothing wrong with that, it’s part of learning) and he started the ‘kaizen is rework’ thing a few months ago and that seems to be his current theme.
    Toyota does put an immense amount of forethought into the production phase but I have to agree that they don’t equate kaizen to rework or “Shame on you, you should have gotten it perfect the first time.”
    Jon, perhaps you can correct me but I believe it was Toyoda Sakichi who said, “Don’t be afraid to fail, let’s give it a try!”
    As for a nation of consultants, there are quite a few out there, I’ll refrain from saying that it’s too many, too few or just right, but I do know that there aren’t enough “good” ones out there. (The definition of ‘good’ also won’t be debated here)

  3. Alberto

    November 21, 2007 - 11:40 am

    Hi Jon and readers.
    I’m just wondering if you meant 3P ( Production Preparation Process ) by A3 ( which i’m really not very familiar to )…
    I agree with Erik, the fear to fail is one of the top reasons Kaizen doesn’t enter several companies, but if you do it right then you have no reason to fail the next time i think that’s what 3P it’s all about, please correct me if i’m wrong.
    About the nation-full Kaizen consultants i woludn’t know what to answer given i don’t live in the US but as my Sensei last said “Consultants are only needed when you did not learn something, when you do the work right then you’ll no longer need a consultant”

  4. Jon Miller

    November 21, 2007 - 10:15 pm

    Production Preparation Process (3-P) is definitely one thing that would reduce the amount of “rework kaizen” needed. The A3 is different from 3-P. A3 refers to a size of paper used to document the PDCA problem solving on one-page, and in general to the process itself.
    A3 is the practice of treating every abnormality, deviation from the standard, or gap between actual and ideal as an opportunity for kaizen and people development.
    Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda was an inventor. Invention is bringing something new into being through trial and error.
    Toyota got to where they are based on a philosophy that craft, making things, and was important.
    One of the Toyota way principles is that an immediate 60% action is better than a delayed 100% action, so long as you keep working on it. Improving on imperfect things them is the heart of kaizen.

  5. Danie

    November 26, 2007 - 1:37 pm

    Hi Jon – you highlight a good point. Expecting that original plant design can mostly eliminate the need for Kaizen consultants implies that the design will be perfect and that there will be no opportunity for improvement … however, there is no doubt that well thought out design and lay-out based on flow and Kaizen principles will reduce the need for unnecessary fixes / “rework”.
    Jon, as you rightly point out – it is about the role of the Kaizen consultant – it should be so much more than simply “fixing” / re-working poorly designed plants (mostly a one-off re-design role).
    Our sensei, Mr Maasaki Imai always reminds us that Kaizen means everyday improvement, everywhere, by everyone.
    I also support Eric’s statement that there are not enough “good” Kaizen consultants -to me they are the ones who know how to achieve real and sustainable results by equipping and supporting their clients to do it and keep on doing it themselves. You’re absolutely right Jon … that’s where the process improvements, standards, job instruction, etc. defines the quality and the level of the consultant.

  6. Lee

    January 6, 2008 - 11:26 pm

    I think what Womack is trying to say here is there are people who take advantage of kaizen. In my job as the lean consultant for my company, I have came across people who tell me that during project planning and designing phase that what has been done is ok or good enough when it violates some of the lean principles. They were going to let kaizen or continuous improvement later to finish up the job. As a consultant looking into this, it was an abuse of the word kaizen and i guess this is what Womack meant. Thanks

  7. Sam

    May 26, 2008 - 8:29 am

    I was just abused repeatedly in long sessions by a manager using his view of “Kaizen” or amateur psychology as a cover. My job processes were the sole focus, in front of about 15 others, labeled as “bad”. No background research into the many systems involved has occurred, and he has also refused to consider the server data showing workloads.
    I did not create these processes, if I could’ve made them better, I would’ve. He’s done this before with other employees, resulting in him being assigned an HR person as ball-and-chain for awhile. Another person, with MS, he read some info on the internet, accused her of lying. She is now fully disabled. IF “Kaizen” is really about abusing people while pretending to help–people should be on-guard.

  8. Jon Miller

    May 27, 2008 - 3:31 pm

    Sam,
    This is not at all what kaizen is about. Sadly bad people can get ahold of good ideas and do harm. Kaizen is never about doing harm. I hope your manager mends his ways, or you find a better one very soon.