7 Ways to Keep Kaizen Going after Years of Progress

Many organizations have pursued kaizen for years or even decades now, 25 years after the publication of Masaaki Imai’s classic book Kaizen. Yet many find that after a few years of progress with kaizen it becomes difficult to maintain momentum, interest or even find new areas for improvement. As a result we even see cases where the overall level of kaizen awareness decreases and past gains are lost. As with learning languages, musical instruments or physical fitness, kaizen ability can deteriorate with disuse. Here are seven ways to keep kaizen going after years of progress.

1. Ask customers to help. Most customers with a supplier development program will be only delighted to offer their help. Those without their own lean or kaizen capability may actually engage you to help them, creating new supply chain collaboration opportunities. At the very least, clearly grasping customer expectations can help reset our own targets and give us new focus for kaizen.

2. Set audacious targets. In other words, think bigger than you normally would. Toyota routinely sets targets that require “cost reduction by half” and other ridiculous things. This helps blow away the more mundane excuses rooted in today’s realities which over time we come to believe are firm and unchanging, i.e. the best we can do. Once the platform has been set on fire, a healthy sense of urgency has been instilled and people are serious about climbing the newly visible peak, allow people to take it a few small, steady steps at a time.

3. Assign people dedicated to leading the climb. There may or may not already be people dedicated to lean, kaizen, six sigma or continuous improvement in an organization that has made progress in kaizen. Aside from the debate of whether this necessary or good to keep continuous improvement going, having a dedicate person or team to examine why kaizen seems to be stuck, benchmark what others are doing to keep it going, and to build momentum around getting the ball rolling again is a good idea. Make sure these people have genuine enthusiasm and knowledge of how to do kaizen and the acuity to recognize what “better than now” looks like.

4. Visualize your progress. This requires using metrics. Let people know how they are getting on towards the goal. I was on the winning end of a discussion recently to persuade the owner of a successful lean company to post improvement metrics on the shop floor for all to see. This would not have been appropriate a year or two ago, nor would these metrics have been appreciated and understood. However after years of progress with kaizen I believe this is exactly what this company needed at this time to keep the focus on their particular themes for kaizen. Done over a period of years, the visualization of kaizen activities also serves as an early warning sign that the energy is waning, or that we are becoming complacent with our progress.

5. Ask people for their ideas. Of course any company advanced with kaizen will say they already do this, but when quizzed on the gemba, only the best can actually answer “Today” when asked “When is the last time you asked another team member for their kaizen idea?” It is the most obvious, most direct and quickest way to keep kaizen going.

6. Involve everyone. Ask, “Who haven’t we involved yet?” Just as there is always more room for improvement in quality, safety and service, there is always someone who has yet to be fully engaged in improvement. This small contingent may have been overlooked for various reasons or due to their roles appearing to tangential. Examples may include the janitors, security guards, the landscaping crew or the seasonal workers. However it is these people who often see things others miss, have time to think of fresh ideas and also require that we go back to basics when teaching how to do kaizen. Involve everyone.

7. Blaze your own trail. We can say kaizen is a “do”, a way or practice, similar to many martial arts such as judo, aikido or kendo. The martial arts process of shu-ha-ri or “hold-break-leave” applies here to blazing your own trail or “way”. First we hold or stay true to the kaizen form taught us by our sensei. Once we have mastered these we can break away from these routines, making changes to better suit the unique person or organization we are. Then we distance ourselves – move apart from the sensei’s way to create our own way or style. In terms of kaizen this means that there comes a time for following the standard approach, a time for mastering and adapting it, and a time for refining our own way of doing kaizen.

The ultimate test of whether one can keep kaizen going is to become the sensei and continue teaching others.