One of the risks, or should we say unintended consequences of a successful lean implementation is that people become unhappy when “there are no more problems to solve”. This seemed like an odd statement when it was first heard spoken at a recent lean leadership session, so we dug deeper. It turns out that this concern is for those managers who are celebrated as successful fire-fighters. The heroes who solve emergent problems and get things done suddenly lose this element of job satisfaction when the process become stable and predictable as part of a lean transformation. What to do with these fire fighters so they don’t turn into arsonists?
The successful manager as fire fighter
We had to explain to people the notion that “no problem is a problem”. This requires redefining for people the lean definition of a problem. A problem is any gap between the ideal and the current condition. Taken to an extreme, by that measure we are nothing but walking problems. Or we could say that if we don’t see problems we have set expectations far too low. In either case, for any business there are many practical and long-term strategic gaps and the lean worker should view these as problems. And when we have problems we do kaizen.
At which point another interesting objection was raised: Isn’t this just calling the daily work of management “kaizen”? Don’t we already by definition do or try to do these things? How is kaizen any different from “improvement” or simply good management? Practically speaking and in terms of kaizen as it exists as part of the philosophy of the Toyota Production System, there are three major differences between kaizen and normal good management.
1. Kaizen requires that we identify and remove waste from our processes
Specifically we need to have an clear definition of waste and an agreed set of 7 or 8 wastes, based on an understanding of the business, the customer and what has value. Good management may lack this keen awareness of waste, and while it may be good it may not be “lean” or resource efficient management, since time is spent doing waste rather than actively removing it.
2. In kaizen, the countermeasure results in a process change that is a new standard
Heroic managers may save the day, but do they leave everyone in better shape to face tomorrow’s challenges in their absence? Not often or deliberately enough. It may be personal ability or know-how that allows this manager to succeed. Another difference between good management and kaizen is that a countermeasure taken to address a problem must result in a new standard for that process. That is the check and act of PDCA. We might say that good management has the Do, and maybe the Plan, not always Check and rarely the Act / Adjust.
3. Kaizen is constant, management is continuous
Kaizen defines ideal an state as a result of the countermeasure activities which, sets the next target and the stage for continuous improvement. Good management is satisfied with a job well done, while kaizen is dissatisfied with a job no matter how well done. Constancy implies a steadiness of purpose based on a long-term philosophy also, while improvement of the continuous / discontinuous / innovation order can be long-term focused but is not necessarily.
Kaizen and good management need each other. If we think of problems as positive things, or even an enlightened leaders’ reason for being, then we no longer need to flit like the moth to the flame of the latest fiasco, but instead set a steady aim towards a clear big goal and begin to break it down for everyone to work on through kaizen.