Management by Kaizen Events

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2017

Mark Graban made the point today in the Lean Blog that kaizen events are not enough. He agrees with another lean healthcare article that by themselves, the rapid improvement events of 3 to 5 days in duration are not sufficient to achieve and sustain a lean culture. But really, is it that kaizen events are not enough or that there are not enough kaizen events?

There is a particular thought exercises I have picked up over the years of doing kaizen and of seeing great sensei do kaizen. When thinking about why something is a problem, it is useful to imagine the problem process or situation functioning perfectly, and then to observe what is missing in reality. You accept the problem, imagine that it is not a problem at all, then overlay the two in your mind. It is a mental process that is somewhat hard to describe without hand gestures.

What if kaizen events were enough to achieve a whole lean enterprise strategy? First of all we need to imagine a scenario under which that would be possible. No, Jon, you say. Experience tells us kaizen events by themselves are not enough, you say. We can’t only do kaizen as events dependent on lean experts, cross-functional teams and five day blitzes. But what if this was perfectly reasonable? What would that look like?
This is where another thought exercise comes in handy. It is the variation on “zero thinking” we might call “all thinking”. Maybe the problem is not that some organizations try to drive lean through kaizen events, but that they don’t drive it through kaizen enough. There’s nothing wrong with kaizen events, it’s the gaps between the kaizen events that kill you. What if every week was a kaizen event?
Taiichi Ohno said standard work should be updated at least each month but he didn’t say how many times per month. Why not 4 times per month? Educate on Monday, observe on Tuesday, redesign and test and Wednesday and Thursday, stabilize on Friday and repeat again on Monday? It may not be everyone all day every day, but why not implement and sustain lean through kaizen events each week?
If everyone a work understood that Monday was “planning day” where you learned, observed and made a plan for changes for days Tuesday-Friday, and the other four days were spent making changes, I can’t see why a “management by kaizen event” wouldn’t work. Who cares if you got nothing done on Monday, if you get double digit improvements by Friday? In fact with so much practice people would get really good at kaizen and events or not, it would become a way of life. Whether at a company level, team level or individual level it is really a matter of being mindful of the work you are about to do this week, observing the process at work, and testing out ways to improve performance.

While we can imagine a scenario under which kaizen events as a way of life would be “enough” to launch and keep a float a lean enterprise strategy, this may not be suitable for all organizations. A eight person job shop could hardly sustain a 4-person kaizen team each week. Likewise a 7,000 person factory would need a massive number of kaizen events in the early going to give everyone the basic education and exposure needed to sustain improvement. These organizations need more than one way to do kaizen.

So we come back to a point we’ve made in the past, that you need more than one way to do kaizen. Whether it’s kaizen events or suggestion systems, when you ask a group of people to rely on only one way of doing kaizen you will run into trouble. But there may be nothing wrong with management by kaizen in the early stages of building a lean culture. When it comes to kaizen, the more the better. The lean enterprise path of maturity in doing kaizen starts with quantity over quality, then proceeds to quality over quantity and over the long haul needs to shift from quality to variety.

  1. Ron Pereira

    February 7, 2008 - 7:00 am

    I am a big believer is looking at kaizen in two ways.
    First, I feel it’s important to look at things from a holistic/macro level. I call this system kaizen.
    Then, once we have a better understanding of the challenges to the system we can focus in on closing those gaps via point kaizen.
    So, perhaps Mark is saying – and if he is I would tend to agree – that random point kaizen will only get us so far.
    Sure, any kaizen is good. But with limited time and resources we must be sure to best utilize our talents and time as effectively as possible.
    Anyhow, that’s my two pence!

  2. Mark Graban

    February 8, 2008 - 8:30 am

    “So, perhaps Mark is saying – and if he is I would tend to agree – that random point kaizen will only get us so far.”
    Yes, that’s one of my points. I didn’t take the time to articulate it all in my post, nor will I here. That’s one dysfunction of kaizen events — isolated point kaizen.
    As Jon wisely pointed out, that’s not an indictment of kaizen events, that’s an indictment of managers who use them poorly and without wisdom of their own.
    Another common dysfunction is the idea that upper managers can “delegate” kaizen through events and that they don’t have to be involved as leaders. Again, an indictment of leaders, not of events themselves.
    I could go on and on… just as there are misapplications of The Toyota Way and “system kaizen.”
    Lean failure is management failure, as is kaizen event failure. Concepts (even sound ones) don’t fail, people do.

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